Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki is an honorable man. He served his country for 38 years and rose to the rank of general. In 1999, he became the 34th chief of staff of the U.S. Army. He is the highest-ranking Japanese-American to have ever served in the U.S. armed forces. He has commanded troops. He is a Vietnam veteran. He has a Purple Heart and lost part of his foot when he stepped on a land mine. Yet he has been a failure as the secretary of Veterans Affairs. It’s time for him to resign his post.
When President Obama nominated Gen. Shinseki to become the secretary of Veterans Affairs, he was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate and sworn in Jan. 20, 2009. This made Gen. Shinseki only the seventh VA secretary. His specific charge is to oversee veterans’ benefits and related matters. His job is to make sure those service men and women are valued and fairly treated by the country they fought for, throughout their lives.
When Shinseki assumed office, the number of backlogged claims stood at 100,000. Three years later, in 2012, when he attended the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention, the backlog was 500,000 claims. He vowed to address this problem, and promised that the share of backlogged claims in the system would be no higher than 40 percent of the total when he returned next year. Yet now, a year later, 65 percent of all claims are still backlogged. Indeed, we still have 500,000 backlogged, which means 500,000 veterans are still waiting for the benefits they deserve.
Concerned Veterans for America wants to do more than complain about the failures of our government. We want to help solve problems. That’s why our Nevada chapter offered to provide volunteers to help with the paperwork at the VA. But they were turned down. The VA explained that filling out these forms requires training. In fact, it can take up to two years to train a new VA employee to be a claims examiner. A former Air Force pilot was amazed. It only takes a year in the Air Force to train a new pilot and that includes the T-37 and T-38 jet trainers. Something is clearly fundamentally wrong with this system.
CVA doesn’t want to just complain, but we do know the importance of holding people accountable for their actions and results. That’s why, when CVA found out that senior management at the VA was receiving annual performance bonuses, they headed for Capitol Hill to ask why. Why would the government spend our taxpayer money giving bonuses to executives in an agency that clearly hasn’t performed and hasn’t fulfilled its mission? A VA spokesman subsequently announced those bonuses had been eliminated. That’s a small bit of reassurance and we are glad to have helped protect taxpayers once again.
Now, CVA is committed to calling attention to the dismal record at the VA of processing veterans’ claims. We’ve been holding symposiums with key leaders and elected officials to intensify calls to address this dereliction of duty.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said it right in a press release: “Any progress toward eliminating the backlog is welcome news. But we cannot forget the department is still far short of its own backlog performance benchmarks for 2013.”
And indeed, that is the reality that Americans should keep in mind. As of August 2013, total pending VA claims are 774,816, of which 489,387, or 63.2 percent, are backlogged. This is the first time since August 2011 that the backlog has dropped below 500,000, but we still have a long way to go.
On Aug. 20, CVA will deliver more than 26,000 signed petitions to the White House demanding that President Obama fix the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and put an end to the massive backlog of disability and pension claims. We are telling the White House we aren’t going away. It’s time for a fundamental transformation of the VA.
Secretary Shinseki, thank you for your service. Most of your life has been spent risking your life in the defense of our country. But I am certain you understand command responsibility. You are responsible for that backlog. If you can’t do the job, then you must step down. Our nation’s veterans have been kept waiting long enough.
Chuck McDougald headed the Veterans Coalition, first for California, then for the Western Region, when Sen. John McCain ran for president in 2008. In 2010, he served as Statewide Volunteer Chair for Carly Fiorina’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. He is currently the Western Region director for ConcernedVeteransforAmerica.org. He lives in South San Francisco with his wife and two kids.