Imagine a young service member returning home to South Carolina after a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Having completed military service, he or she simply wants to get back to work, get involved in the community and build a life with friends and family.
You may not have to think too hard to come up with an image of that returning veteran. After all, the Palmetto State is host to seven military bases, 38,000 active duty personnel, and 406,000 veterans (that's 10 percent of our state's population). When you think of a military veteran, you're very likely thinking of a friend, family member or neighbor.
Historically, it's the job of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) to help smooth their transition back to civilian life. Unfortunately, today's VA is almost completely dysfunctional when it comes to serving our veterans.
Our elected officials in Washington fall over one another to prove they care about veterans--particularly during campaign season. But when it comes time to apply for hard-earned benefits, veterans too often find themselves running into a bureaucratic brick wall--and political rhetoric won't help them over it.
According to a recent New York Times report, the VA has 890,000 pension and compensation claims that remain unfulfilled -- a number that has more than doubled since 2008. That's because today it takes 240 days to process the average claim -- 60 days longer than it took a decade ago.
VA officials claim the department lacks adequate personnel to keep up with demand, but that is a dubious claim. In spite of a generous budget of $126.9 billion for fiscal year 2012, and a workforce of more than 302,000 personnel, the VA is not getting the job done, and its bureaucratic culture, which prizes process and production quotas over outcomes, won't be improved by adding more employees.
The culture of mismanagement and waste at the VA is nothing new; veterans have long criticized the department's poor service. But most Americans would probably be shocked to hear how bad it's gotten. Just this month, in fact, we got a full portrayal of the problems at the VA in the form of an extensive watchdog report from the VA's Office of the Inspector General (IG) -- and it's not a pretty picture.
According to the IG report, the VA held two human resources conferences last year in Orlando at a cost of a staggering $6.1 million. Among the revelations in the IG report: several VA employees accepted inappropriate and illegal gifts from government contractors, including spa visits, gift baskets, limo rides and helicopter tours of the Orlando area.
What was intended as a "training event" turned into a luxury vacation for many highly compensated VA employees -- while veterans went begging, awaiting their VA benefits for health care, retirement and other support they had earned.
The scandal led to the resignation of the VA's top human resources executive and two other department officials. Furthermore, members of Congress have also called for the department's chief of staff to be dismissed. These are good first steps, but we shouldn't be satisfied with just a few ritual sacrifices. What's needed is broader reform and accountability at the VA -- both in addressing wasteful spending and in reducing the backlog of benefits claims.
We can do better than this.
Concerned Veterans for America is striving to bring greater attention to how the VA's dysfunctional culture is leading to poor service and outcomes for our veterans. That's why we launched the "We Can Do Better" bus tour, which came through Columbus on Wednesday, to focus on these and other issues important to veterans.
We invite everyone to join us in our call for a VA that serves and protects veterans, not bureaucrats. Let's stand together to ensure that the men and women who have served our nation in uniform get the support they've earned.
John Therrien, now retired and living in Bluffton, S.C., served in the Army's Airborne and Special Forces in Vietnam from 1967-1969, and re-enlisted in 1980 to serve in the New York Army National Guard.