Who Supports the Troops? - Part II
Larry Scott, a four-year Army veteran and operator of VaWatchdog.org, keeps a close eye on veterans issues. He also writes a column for Opednews.com. I recently spoke to him about the state of the VA:
People support our troops but they don't understand that every single one of those troops is going to be a veteran. The support stops at the bumper. It's a sad thing. It's what I call "bundling patriotism." We support our president. We support the war. We support the troops and therefore we are patriotic. People will open their hearts, but they won't open their wallets and that's what it's going to take.
Why isn't the VA being adequately funded?
The current administration looks at the concept of the VA as just another expense. They treat veterans' benefits as another expense line on the budget. They're not dealing with a moral obligation.
On my website, I don't talk about war because it doesn't matter to a veteran. Veterans went out and served their country, right or wrong, they did it. You have people who have served their country for whatever reasons -- a lot were drafted -- and now they're finding that the government is not doing the right thing.
Somebody once asked me, 'Are you a conspiracy theorist?' It's just the way the Republican Party, which is controlled by neocons, works. It's the way they do business and it's just that simple. People look for complex explanations, but it's not that complex. They're looking at the VA as a business. Steve Buyer actually says we should run this like a business. Revenue enhancement? Good lord, it's a government agency and it's designed to help veterans. What do you mean by revenue enhancement? It's the whole mindset of the current administration.
What does the budget itself look like?
You actually haven't seen a monetary cut in veterans' benefits. The media reports say Bush increased the veterans budget by 57 percent, but what people have to realize is they're being misled by that statement. The majority of the VA budget is mandatory. It's mandated by Congress. There is no arguing over the funds. The money is just put in there. The problem is that the health care side is not mandatory; it's part of a discretionary budget. It goes to Congress. It gets argued. It gets cut. When you analyze the current fiscal year, the VA healthcare budget and pull out the bogus numbers, the actual increase is 2.6 percent, but you have to look at the rate of inflation in the healthcare sector, which averages 5.6 percent.
What's the situation like for the VA today?
More and more veterans are coming into the system. In this last five years, we've had a huge influx of veterans. Vietnam veterans are getting older and their health is not what it used to be. They are enrolling for the first time saying, 'I need some healthcare.' A lot of veterans are unemployed or underemployed. We also older vets who are on Medicare who realize that the VA is cheaper and then there are the troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. You put all that stress on the VA and you can't handle it.
How is treatment?
People are waiting 36 months for necessary orthopedic surgery here in Portland, Oregon. Others are waiting up to five years for necessary dental care.
When it comes to life or limb, the VA is excellent. If a veteran has a medical emergency, they get you into an operating room immediately. It's the other medically necessary surgeries that they are postponing or canceling. About two years ago, the retina in my right eye collapsed. I went to the VA in Portland; they threw me on a gurney and did eye surgery right away. The doctor told me if I had waited a few hours, I would have lost my eyesight. The VA is the best healthcare center in the world, without a doubt. It's far superior than the private sector if you can get it.
You follow these issues closely on your website. How has the media covered this issue?
There's no mainstream coverage at all. You'll see it on military and veterans websites, but that's it. I'll be writing about it for military.com, but that's a limited audience.
What about the public? Why aren't they raising hell about this, especially the ones who drape themselves in the flag and march in pro-war rallies?
What you find is the old problem of cognitive dissonance. What you've done is presented them a fact that conflicts with their faith. I have to say the conservative movement has been good at packaging the support the troops concept when in actuality they don't.
To admit that the government is not caring for the troops would be something like admitting that Bush lied to get us into war. They would look at it as adopting a viewpoint that has already been taken by the other side even if it is right. I'm sure there will be a breaking point. Suddenly people will realize what's going on and I think the government will have to address the issue of veterans benefits and veterans healthcare.
Name a few politicians who fight for the troops.
The ones that are really absolute killers and ball busters are Lane Evans of Illinois, the ranking member on House Committee of Veterans Affairs, Brian Baird, a veteran and clinical psychologist in Oregon and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA). This woman will steam roll you when it comes to veterans issues.
Those are all Democrats.
Surprise! Show me a Republican who has voted for or who supports full and mandatory funding for VA healthcare. A Senate and House bill has been languishing for a long time that would require the federal government to fully fund mandatory VA healthcare. The bill was written by Senator John Kerry. The Republicans have done this over and over. They have trashed the legislation and won't bring it for a vote. They don't want the hassle. If you fully fund the VA alone, you're looking at a tax increase. The whole neocon movement is so fully entrenched. You find that in all government agencies. The upper echelons of the VA are all political appointees.
Are they veterans themselves?
Absolutely not. Take a look at VA secretary Jim Nicholson. He was chairman of the Republican National Committee. That earned him the ambassadorship to the Vatican. Nicholson is a danger to veterans. The man does not belong there. You look at other levels. They have a new CIO officer, Robert McFarland. His only qualifications for that job are that he's a good Republican and he used to sell computers for Dell to government agencies. Many of the IT functions are controlled locally by the VA and that gave McFarland absolute total control over all IT assets. That includes hardware, software and personnel at the VA. That's a $2 billion a year budget.
You swim in this information. How do you deal with it?
The website. I've been in the VA system as a service connected vet for 25 years. For a number of years, things went smoothly because there weren't many problems at the VA. The last few years, I became more aware and my wife finally said, 'Do something about it.' About a year and half ago, I started my website and it got a little attention. It has taken off since then. That's how I deal with it. I get a great deal of satisfaction from gathering the information and disseminating it. You will not find rants and raves or innuendo. I think that's one of the high points of the website.
We have to keep pounding away. That's why I decided to take the vawatchdog site to the next level. I've had officials from government agencies suggest I shouldn't be doing what I'm doing. There have been no threats. They ask, 'Why are you doing this? Why are you making all this noise?' That tells me the message is accurate and somebody is listening.
Have your political opinions changed over the years?
Up until about six years ago, I was an incredibly conservative person. When I saw the Bush agenda, I said no, we're on a good track here and we need to stay on course. I changed my affiliation and have slid slightly to the left ever since then. I'm not a raving radical liberal. I like to think of myself as a common sense liberal. There are certain social contracts that we must honor and we're not doing that. That's one of the things that pulled me away from my conservative roots.