Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Where Is Our Sense of Outrage? - The Scandal of Veterans' Health Care

This week’s edition of Newsweek magazine offers as its cover story an in-depth discussion of the crisis in healthcare for our veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The article seems to be balanced, well-researched – and deeply disturbing.

I have some personal knowledge of the woes of veterans struggling to receive adequate and timely service from the Veteran’s Administration. My brother retired from the U.S. Navy as a Senior Chief, and ever since is retirement has been battling a chronic and debilitating cocktail of symptoms that are clearly service-related. I have heard the stories of his battles with the bureaucracy of the VA and its dysfunctional web of hospitals scattered across the landscape.

I have heard too many first-hand and second-hand accounts of men and women returning from deployments overseas, only to run into a brick wall when it comes time to receive their benefits and appropriate healthcare. It is a national scandal that has somehow remained beneath the radar of most citizens. I applaud Newsweek for waving the bloody flag. The state of healthcare for our veterans should become a pivotal issue in the upcoming presidential election, but it will only become that if a grassroots groundswell emerges that forces each candidate to articulate a plan for radically restructuring both the bureaucracy and philosophy behind the current debacle.

In his introduction to the cover article, Newsweek editor, Jon Meacham, makes a very poignant point in quoting Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The great speech, which contains the familiar cadences: ”with malice toward none, with charity for all,” also contains these lesser-known phrases: “Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nations wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”

Meacham calls this a sacred American text that clearly articulates a sacred American duty. He could not be more right! It has been said that a society’s moral health can be judged by how it treats those who are helpless and defenseless. This is no less true for those who have defended our way of life, were wounded in the course of serving their country, and are now defenseless against the inertia of a healthcare system that is not ready to - in the words of Aldonza in “Man of La Mancha,” - "to minister to their wounds.”

The cynic in me must ask the rhetorical question: “Would the plight of our veterans be more in the public eye if they were living in Darfur?” I do not begrudge the outpouring of concern for those poor people. I have devoted part of my life to improving the lot of those living and dying in impoverished and war-torn nations, so I am a huge proponent of our doing our part to help those outside the U.S. who need our resources. But that does not justify turning a blind eye to those at home who have served, and who are being ill-served by the less-than-benign neglect of a healthcare system that is overburdened and underfunded. This is not a zero sum game. A nation that has expended many billions on the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan must be just as willing to pay the price of rehabilitating the lives of our children whom we have sent to war.

There is a pragmatic consideration in this whole struggle. Our military is an all-volunteer force. How long will we be able to sustain ourselves and attract new generations of volunteers if all they see in the eyes of those who have already served is the hurt that comes from disappointment and the rage that comes from betrayal.

We must act. If you are someone who is inclined to write your Senators and Congressman, I urge you to do so. We must hold our current leaders accountable for actually leading in this regard. In New England, with the upcoming presidential race, we will have plenty of opportunity to make sure the candidates are ware that we are watching how they develop a plan to fix this mess and cure this national malaise. We must use the town meetings and candidates coffees to raise the issue and keep it in the forefront of their minds.

We must bring to this crisis the same sense of urgency that caused President Kennedy to announce that within the decade we would put a man on the moon. If we can muster the will and the wherewithal to conquer space, we can launch a new initiative to leave the gravitational bonds of apathy and complacency and live up to the covenant we have made with those who have volunteered to fight for this great nation. And failure is not an option!


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