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Our Views: Our duty to honor

VA hospital scandal a national disgrace casting a shadow over Memorial Day

POSTED: May 25, 2014 12:34 a.m.

“All we have of freedom, all we use or know. This our fathers bought for us long and long ago.”
— Rudyard Kipling

“They are dead; but they live in each Patriot’s breast,
And their names are engraven on honor’s bright crest.”
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Although no sculptured marble should rise to their memory, nor engraved stone bear record of their deeds, yet will their remembrance be as lasting as the land they honored.”
— Daniel Webster

“Who kept the faith and fought the fight; The glory theirs, the duty ours.”
—Wallace Bruce

We show it with the placement of flags on soldiers’ graves, a symbol of what they fought for, keeping the banner of freedom close to them forever.

We show it by standing by the road during the parade, waving and saluting the veterans who ride through the streets, a celebration some never received when they first returned home.

We show it with a weekend of solemn ceremonies but also with fireworks and cookouts, enjoying the way of life they sacrificed to help preserve.

In so many ways, our nation shows its appreciation to those who served so courageously. We set aside this holiday at the end of each May — now Memorial Day, formerly called Decoration Day — to honor our fallen heroes. In November, we do the same for those still among us who wore and still wear the uniform.

Yet if we are so dedicated to the men and women who fight and sacrifice on our behalf, past and present, how can we let our veterans down when they need us?

Even as we mark Memorial Day, the headlines tell of abuses by the Department of Veterans Affairs and its incompetence, deception or criminal malfeasance — perhaps all of the above — in managing its hospitals.

The department is investigating 26 facilities nationwide for long delays in providing care, leading to unnecessary suffering and even deaths among vets suffering from serious ailments. One Phoenix hospital faces allegations that 40 people died while waiting for treatment and staff kept a secret list of patients in order to hide those delays.

It’s the usual pattern of government scandal: Screw up, then cover up, one offense as bad as the other.

Both the White House and Congress are investigating the VA mess, putting director Eric Shinseki and his underlings on the hot seat. The issue has been largely bipartisan, members of both parties shocked and angered at such shoddy treatment of our brave warriors.

So how could this happen, and for so long, without someone blowing the whistle or seeking a solution?

President Barack Obama promised to get to the bottom of the scandal and take swift action to remedy it. But that response already is too long coming for ailing veterans lined up like customers at a bakery waiting for their number to be called. Members of his administration should have found this problem and fixed it before it ever got to this point.

The investigation into this massive failure needs to be thorough and given top priority. Those found responsible for the initial mismanagement should lose their jobs, likely starting with Shinseki. Yet finding a single scapegoat to take the heat won’t be enough this time. Those to blame for the subsequent cover-up and failure to hand over pertinent data on the VA backlogs should face appropriate criminal charges.

This is an inexcusable fiasco, the worst scandal so far from an administration that gave us the IRS audit and domestic spying abuses, the Benghazi disaster and a mishandled rollout of the health care law.

It’s time for the president to chuck aside his dispassionate demeanor for once and show he’s as outraged as the rest of us are over this debacle. He should care enough to get to the bottom of it quickly and send heads rolling. Those responsible for this mess should be fired, and some likely should go to jail.

With thousands more troops returning throughout the year as the U.S. withdraws forces from Afghanistan, the effort to clean up the VA takes on greater urgency. And the fact that it’s an election year isn’t lost on anyone, either; surely voters will hold accountable at the polls any leaders who fail to follow through on policing the agency.

And they should. There are so many issues we can debate over government’s role in our lives and what its priorities should be. This one is a no-brainer. If we send members of our armed forces abroad to defend our nation and its allies, we owe a debt we must repay. Those who wear the uniform deserve the best health care available when they return, not just for wounds seen and unseen suffered in battle but for all of their health needs, and for the rest of their lives.

We also owe them an education, job training, family support services, anything they need to ease back into civilian life.

This is no entitlement or government handout; it’s a repayment, a show of gratitude for those who put their lives on the line for their country.

Failure to do so makes all of our patriotic holidays moot. We can’t wave the flag and believe in what it stands for if we don’t support those who fight to protect it. And we can’t honor the efforts of our dead soldiers if we dishonor those who are still living.

Or as Wallace Bruce put it: The glory is theirs; the duty is ours.


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