Time to Treat Veterans' Problems as Defense Problems

If we cannot adequately and consistently "care for him who shall have borne the battle," then there shall be fewer and fewer who will be willing to bear the battle on our behalf.

VA banner.jpg
Yuri Gripas/Reuters

To ask a citizen to give up his or her life, limb or good health in defense of a nation is to simultaneously enter into a sacred agreement with that citizen, as President Lincoln eloquently put it, "to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan."

Yet, over the past decade the government agency through which we fulfill our sacred commitment to those who have "borne the battle," the Department of Veterans Affairs, has failed in many ways to follow through on that commitment on our behalf in a timely manner for far too many veterans.

By now it should be clear: The VA's miscalculations and letdowns over the past decade are not just a VA problem; they are the Department of Defense's problem, as well. Although the two may be administratively distinct, the fate of each is intimately tied into the other in a circle of recruitment, service and care, and the impact of what happens at each stage of that cycle on future recruitment.

If we cannot adequately and consistently "care for him who shall have borne the battle," then there shall be fewer and fewer who will be willing to bear the battle on our behalf.

Living up to this commitment is not only a moral obligation we have as a society, but it is also an imperative for the future readiness of our nation's armed forces. The all-volunteer nature of our military today means that we rely entirely on the willingness of mostly young men and women to offer themselves up in service for what is at best modest compensation to serve for extended periods of time in what are often harsh and dangerous conditions. No other employer could offer such a job description to potential recruits and not be laughed out of business.

But public service is a noble calling, and military service specifically elicits a willingness in many to set aside the trappings, pleasures and security of being a civilian in order to contribute to the effort to defend our borders and preserve our way of life.

Military service is always a potentially hazardous job, especially over the past decade as the wars to which we have committed ourselves have raged on. But the men and women who volunteer themselves for this job, and who put their lives and health at risk in the process, do not do so foolishly. Because of the explicit commitment we have made to care for them should they be injured -- or for their families should they be killed -- Americans by the thousands every month still volunteer to join the ranks of "the other one percent," the minuscule portion of our population that has fought in our nation's recent wars.

Yet, when the Post-9/11 GI Bill was implemented, tens of thousands of young veterans who were promised generous new education benefits when they returned from war saw shamefully excessive delays in those payments getting to the schools they had planned to attend. Over the past four years, the number of injured veterans waiting for more than a year on a decision by the VA on their disability claims has increased by 2,000 percent. And for many of the widows and widowers of veterans who have lost their lives, they too have seen their requests for financial support become hopelessly backlogged.

The VA is finally making many long overdue improvements in an effort to modernize through a focus on people, process and technology. But there are still legitimate concerns about whether these comparatively modest changes will be sufficient to effectively bring the U.S. government's second largest bureaucracy into the 21st century. The VA's flagship new technology platform for filing disability claims, the Veterans Benefits Management System, or VBMS, for example, may be a step forward in the world of the VA, but this shiny new crown jewel of the VA's technology platform is already dated by the rest of world's standards. And the efficiency improvements the VA hopes to gain from the deployment of this new system will only be realized if all of the VA's assumptions about it functioning smoothly and consistently are realized.

The totality of the VA's failures to keep pace with changes in society, with advances in technology, and with their own predictions about increasing demand for veterans benefits and services over the years constitute a failure not only on the part of one department or one administration (this problem has spanned multiple administrations), but on the part of our country as a whole to fulfill its promise to adequately support its veterans.

Young Americans see these failures exposed across both traditional and social media on a daily basis. They hear their friends who have returned from war talk about being able to deposit a check with their bank's iPhone app but having the VA's VBMS system freeze and time out when they try to upload a scan of a paper document to prove a claim for benefits. And they question why potential new recruits for the armed forces would voluntarily put their health, their livelihoods and their lives in the hands of government bureaucracies that far too often let warriors and veterans fall through the cracks of their antiquated systems.

This post was originally published at Defense One on August 1, 2013.