Failing a promise to our vets

During last week’s Parkersburg City Council meeting, Council President John Rockhold made a comment regarding council members’ reluctance to second a motion to approve a reading. It seemed as though members were unwilling to proceed before certain questions were answered. Rockhold said sometimes people “don’t want to expose their ignorance in this meeting.”

It wasn’t the issue at hand that caught my attention, but the thought that sometimes the only thing holding up progress is a lack of information, and a reluctance on the part of those involved to admit they don’t have that information. I am as guilty of this as anybody. I hate to admit when I don’t know something. Honestly, if someone asked me to help out with some research on quantum physics, I would probably hem and haw and mumble something about knowing Quark, because, helpfully enough, a quark is both an elementary particle (yes, I just had to look that up), and the name of the page layout software we use to create the newspaper.

Generally speaking, it is human nature to want to appear intelligent and informed – unless you are the president or a member of Congress. Then, all bets are off, and for some reason it is more appealing to say “I had no knowledge,” “I was unaware,” or “I need to embark on a fact-finding mission,” than to admit being up-to-speed on a situation.

President Barack Obama has known since 2008 that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs facilities were likely hiding the truth about the deadly length of time many veterans were waiting for care.

In a memo the Obama administration transition team received six years ago, Veterans Affairs officials said “The problems and causes associated with scheduling, waiting times and waiting lists are systemic.” And, yes, the timing of that memo suggests previous administrations were likely aware of the problem as well.

Congress, meanwhile, has known for years that it was making life difficult for VA administrators. In fact, it took an act of Congress to give the VA’s acting secretary the ability to fire senior administrators even after the public became aware that members of Congress were aware of the agency’s mounting problems.

When it comes to backlogged claims and other clerical nightmares, Congress is as guilty as anybody. Funding deficiencies have meant nearly 40 percent of VA claims files are still on paper. Can you imagine? Congressional veterans affairs committee members have known about delays in services and claims since before the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, partly through repeated requests for better funding and resources.

But now, the news that tangles of bureaucratic red tape with one end planted firmly in Washington, D.C., have led to systemic failures that proved deadly for dozens of military veterans, and are the grossest disservice to hundreds of thousands, is being portrayed as a revelation by representatives and senators who are falling all over themselves to be the first to say they had no idea. Worse is the notion that, well, now that they are aware, of course, they must wait until who-knows-how-many audits and investigations are completed before they begin work on the problem.

It is all well and good to joke about wanting to appear informed. But the wellbeing of those who have dedicated their lives to serving our country with everything they have is no matter on which to try to save face. Congress, the president and the Department of Veterans Affairs failed to do what they promised our veterans they would. At least 40 veterans are dead because of it. That should be all anyone needs to know.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com