Providing for the living honors the dead

Monday I will honor my brother, who gave his life in Vietnam while serving our nation.

I won’t stand at his gravesite and mourn, nor will I march around town with an American flag or other patriotic accessories. I won’t be spending my money at any of the many Memorial Day sale events.

I honor my brother as well as all of our nation’s fallen by caring for veterans who have returned home and active military families who wait. And while that sounds simple — to make it a priority to care and provide for those who have served — it is a concept government officials have not yet grasped.

Memorial Day - Volunteers work to raise American flags along the edge of the cemetery in Oxford, Iowa.
Volunteers work to raise American flags along the edge of the cemetery in Oxford, Iowa. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

The Department of Veterans Affairs has 5,565 medical facilities, including hospitals, clinics, warehouses and other physical structures to support medical operations. Nearly 1,000 of those facilities have been utilized for more than 90 years. Overall, 60 percent of VA facilities are more than 50 years old.

Because many are no longer economically sustainable — buildings that are too challenging to maintain or provide no value to veterans seeking care ­­— nearly 350 sit vacant or have less than 50 percent occupancy, at a taxpayer price tag of about $24 million annually.

That level of funding, according to Congressional testimony by VA Secretary Robert McDonald, could hire about 200 nurses for a year, pay for 144,000 primary care visits, provide veterans 13,500 days of inpatient care or support 41,900 days of nursing home care in Community Living Centers.

Budget proposals, yet to be approved by Congress, would allow for expanded lease agreements between the VA and third parties. That expanded authority would allow agreements for repurposing or demolishing outdated facilities to make way for new projects that could benefit veterans, such as housing for homeless veterans or specialized care units.

“Fueled by more than a decade of war, Agent Orange-related disability compensation claims, a complex, non-linear claims appeal process, demographic shifts, increased medical claims issues and other factors, veterans’ demand for services and benefits has exceeded the VA’s capacity to meet it,” McDonald told Congress. “VA has worked with the Ad Council on a pro bono advertising campaign to encourage more veterans to sign up for their benefits, but we are reluctant to launch the campaign at a time when our capacity is stretched to its limit.”

Although Congress worked to temporarily alleviate demands on the VA system by approving emergency resources through the Veterans Choice Act, the short-term funds do not address long-standing infrastructure and capacity issues within the VA. And, unfortunately, the proposed budget will likely not be met by Congress, despite a White House veto threat.

“The bill fails to fully fund critical priorities, including veterans’ medical care and military and VA construction,” read a statement from the White House regarding the House appropriations bill.

It’s hardly the first time Congress has waved an American flag with one hand while the other marks up bills slicing veterans’ benefits. In 2013, about 170,000 veterans and their families felt the impact of reductions to federal food assistance programs. Political maneuvering in 2014 earned the label of “Senate shenanigans” from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, but the bill that would have waived sequester spending caps for the VA was defeated.

“It’s been a winter of discontent, starting when Congress cut military retirement benefits before being pressured into reversing course,” said Paul Rieckhoff, leader of the non-profit veterans’ organization. “Then earlier this week, Congress forced the Pentagon to make budget cuts that increased living costs for our service members. And now the Senate can’t pass a critical and transformative bill that includes priorities that have garnered bipartisan support for years.”

American Legion national commander Daniel Dellinger added, “I don’t know how anyone who voted ‘no’ today can look at veteran in the eye and justify that vote. Our veterans deserve more than what they got today.”

And, in the latest round of defense budget negotiations, 2011 self-imposed spending caps are also playing a role. The House version of the bill, which funds items ranging from missile defense programs to military family housing to the creation of an electronic health record program, exceeds the cap by relying moneys from the Pentagon’s war fund. The Senate proposal doesn’t pluck from the war fund, but considers privatizing some aspects of active duty military life that directly impact soldiers and their families, such as commissary benefits.

And while Congress continues to bicker, to convolute tax dollars spent on war and warriors, another group of citizens steps up to try to diminish the plight of homeless veterans. Or to alleviate the challenges of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Or to aid the family of the fallen. The needs seem endless.

There should be time for me to sit quietly this Memorial Day and consider the man my brother could have become. There should be time for all military families to mourn and remember. Instead, we have no other choice than to fight for those who fought for us. The government body that turned our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, friends and spouses into soldiers has shown itself to be too focused on partisan politics and the next election to be truly worthy of their sacrifices.

So we hold another bake sale, pitch another corporate partner, issue another report, build another monument. All the while we hope for more than lip service or staged photos, and wonder why a government called so many to serve when it can’t or doesn’t really care for them.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on May 24, 2015. Photo credit: Brian Ray/The Gazette