Veterans Day – a great time to reflect on the sacrifices of others or that great sale at the mall.
Coming just three days after an election that left the nation bitterly divided, Friday’s holiday was a bit of relief.
Although wounds remain raw, the parades and ceremonies invited those weary of an especially negative campaign season to focus on the veterans whose service allows us to have unpredictable elections. Many government offices and schools were closed, parking meters were free and some places like the District postponed trash collection.
“Whenever the world makes you cynical, whenever you doubt that courage and goodness and selflessness is possible, stop and look to a veteran,” President Obama said at Arlington National Cemetery.
Certainly, the election of Donald Trump, whose reputation defies the definition of goodness and selflessness, left many with a degree of cynicism that looking to a veteran won’t cure. Without mentioning the president-elect, Obama noted how a political campaign “lays bare disagreements across our nation.”
But “when the election is over,” he added, “as we search for ways to come together — to reconnect with one another and with the principles that are more enduring than transitory politics — some of our best examples are the men and women we salute on Veterans Day.”
How America treats those men and women has been especially controversial since a scandal broke in 2014 over the cover-up of long wait times for patients at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals. The VA’s inspector general’s office has completed more than 80 criminal investigations related to the outrage.
Noting the tragedy of 20 veterans taking their lives every day, Obama said “we have to get them the help they need. We have to keep solving problems like long wait times at the VA. We have to keep cutting the disability claims backlog. We have to resist any effort to outsource and privatize the health care we owe America’s veterans.”
Trump promises every veteran will have “the choice to seek care at the VA or at a private service provider of their own choice.”
Obama also had good news, including an 85 percent increase in funding for veterans. “We’ve cut veteran homelessness almost in half. Today, more veterans have access to health care and fewer are unemployed,” he said. “We helped disabled veterans afford prosthetics. We’re delivering more mental health care services to more veterans than ever before because we know that not all wounds of war are visible.”
The White House listed other accomplishments, including 1.7 million people getting $68.9 billion in education benefits since 2009 under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The administration also has launched a multi-agency military apprenticeship program to help service members “improve job skills and obtain industry-recognized credentials and certificates while on active duty.”
Acting Office of Personnel Management Director Beth Cobert’s Veterans Day message pointed to the increase in the percentage of veterans among federal hires. It was 24 percent when Obama signed a November 2009 executive order establishing a federal veterans hiring program. At the end September 2015, that had increased to 32.5 percent, with more than 500,000 vets hired by 24 agencies since fiscal 2009.
“Not only is hiring veterans the right thing to do, it makes good business sense,” Cobert said. “The skills, leadership, and discipline that veterans bring to Federal workplaces across this great nation are essential to our ability to meet our mission to serve the American people.”
While problems with VA medical care have captured much of the attention during the last two years, issues involving veterans’ benefits have received relatively little notice. A congressionally requested report released last week by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) cites a major decline in disability claims processing time. The number of vets waiting more than 125 days has fallen from 611,000 in March 2013 to between 70,000 and 80,000 recently. That’s about an 87 percent drop.
But it’s not all good news.
The number of veterans appealing benefit determinations doubled from 2014 to 2016. There were more than 443,000 waiting a final decision in January.
“VA now projects that ‘by the end of 2027, under the current process, without significant legislative reform, Veterans will be waiting on average 10 years for a final decision on their appeal,’” according to the NAPA report. “The pending inventory could climb to over 2 million cases in the appeals inventory by 2027.”
Trump pledges “no more waiting backlogs.”
Good luck on that. It’s easier promised than accomplished.