By Peter Sills
On Memorial Day, when the focus should be solely on the bravery and sacrifice of the nation’s veterans and troops, the spotlight glares on yet another Veterans Affairs scandal. This time it’s news of falsified reports, delayed care, and secret waiting lists. What will it be next time? And will the hundreds of thousands of veterans waiting for care ever receive the treatment they so greatly need and deserve?
I’d like to be able to say that these latest VA scandals surprise me. That the agency’s repeated failure to provide our nation’s vets with proper care just can’t be true. But I know the real story all too well. I helped represent the Vietnam Veterans of America in the Agent Orange class action lawsuit. My work on that case taught me the government’s unofficial policy on handling veteran woes: lie, deny, and cover up.
Americans want to believe that the U.S. government does everything it can to take care of and support its veterans. However, the government actively sought to prevent Vietnam veterans from getting the care they desperately needed and deserved. For decades, the VA refused to acknowledge that anyone could have been harmed by military herbicides, like Agent Orange, used during the Vietnam War. It willfully ignored any and all evidence of that harm and then conducted its own research to prove these chemicals were safe—research that was intentionally flawed and that is largely disregarded today.
Sadly, the government’s unwillingness to accept responsibility wasn’t an aberration. More recently, it has tried to minimize the harm caused by toxins in the Middle East. Any veterans of the wars in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan whose health problems may have been caused by chemical exposure, instead of bombs and bullets, have faced similar resistance. These troops were exposed to depleted uranium, low levels of chemical weapons, sulfur, chromium, and other toxic chemicals. But the VA told many of them that they were psychologically, not physically, ill. The same line they gave to Vietnam veterans.
The agency also failed to keep accurate records about who was sick, who’d been treated, or even how many people had actually seen combat. Amputation records, which would seem to be relatively straightforward, were also unreliable. After a while, people who’d lost only a finger or toe weren’t included, perhaps to make the number of amputees seem smaller than it really was. And the research on chemical exposure was, once again, pretty much worthless. Perhaps worst of all, the government allowed its major outpatient unit for wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital to become a shambles.
It is extremely unfortunate that political expedience has consistently trumped the proper care of our veterans. It isn’t just that their health problems have been ignored. The government has actively covered up the truth about what really happened to our troops.
It is imperative that the VA take responsibility for its actions—past and present. We cannot continue to allow the mistreatment of our veterans. I urge President Obama to keep his promise to hold accountable those responsible for the VA’s latest travesties. And I urge him to do all that is necessary to overhaul an agency that has repeatedly and purposely ignored the pleas of those it has been charged to serve.
We want to attract the best and brightest to our military. We want to have the strongest military in the world. And yet we repeatedly neglect those who’ve already given so much to their country. None of these veterans requesting care from the VA asked the nation to engage in the wars that left them sick and injured. They simply did their duty when the time came. Now it’s time to do ours.
Peter Sills is the author of Toxic War : The Story of Agent Orange (Vanderbilt University Press, 2014).