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Say No To a VA Coup

During combat, out-of-the-box thinking saves lives and often wins battles. Should this logic be applied so that military leaders are the only people selected to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)?

Should military thinking be imposed on the VA, an agency with more than 400,000 employees, a budget of more than $270 billion, and responsible for nearly 18 million veterans?

According to Stars and Stripes, “A congressman from Florida wants active-duty military officers to take charge of Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers, arguing the hospitals are plagued by crises and need a new leadership approach.” He’s introduced the the Leadership Evaluation At Department of Veterans’ Affairs (LEAD VA) Act, which will, according to Mast, create, “a pilot program where military officers run VA medical centers.” This will allow “Congress to “determine if they are more efficient and provide better care. “ “At the end of the day,” Mast insists,” no one is better prepared to oversee veteran care than those who will one day be veterans themselves. That’s what this bill is all about. ”

So essentially, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) believes the military should stage a hostile takeover and run VA hospitals.

Not so fast.

A review of three recent VA leaders who were once Army generals reveals serious and significant problems with that idea.

Let’s begin with Michael Kussman, a retired Army Brigadier General and former VA Undersecretary of Health. While at VA, he was presented with information about the infamous Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal in August 2004. He could have done something about the problem. But, for nearly three years there is no record of what he did or didn’t do with the information before the horrible Walter Reed scandal became national news in February 2007.

Kussman departed VA in 2009 and soon became an advisor to a Koch-funded AstroTurf organization seeking to privatize VA care. The extremist group Concerned Veterans of America told USA Today, “We've got to blow [VA] all up and rethink it.

Strike one.

Next, there is James Peake, a retired Army Lieutenant General and VA Secretary from 2007 to 2009. While facing a lawsuit by wounded veterans seeking prompt and high quality VA care and benefits for posttraumatic stress disorder, Peake was caught concealing the very serious Veteran suicide epidemic in 2008. Peake also left VA in 2009.

Strike two.

And, then, there is Eric Shinseki, a retired Army General. In 2014, even after dozens of Congressional hearings, the Walter Reed scandal, and the lawsuit fresh in VA’s memory, Congress and VA still didn’t hire enough staff to accurately and quickly process disability claims or hire enough medical professionals to provide quality and prompt medical care. Shinseki was forced to resign.

Strike three.

And here’s an additional issue. Military medicine is all about getting people back on the battlefield regardless of the human cost. As we’ve seen from Agent Orange to burnpit and other toxic exposures, as well as Military Sexual Trauma (MST) the military has concealed -- and often obstructed -- its contributions to preventable healthcare problems active duty servicemember and veterans experience. Military indoctrination also programs service members to suck it up and avoid seeking help for serious healthcare issues.

Do we want this kind of thinking to guide the Veterans Health Administration? Of course not. Mast’s idea strikes out. VA will never need a military coup.

Generals earned their stars, and some led VA well, including retired Army General Omar Bradley after World War II. Bradley said, “We are dealing with veterans, not procedures; their problems, not ours.”

After nearly 31 years of war in and around Iraq and Afghanistan, our veterans, families, and VA need competence, compassion, innovation, full funding, full staffing, and additional training.

America runs best under civilian leadership. VA’s new Secretary, Denis McDonough, has just embarked on building a new team so that our veterans and families receive the quality care and benefits they earned defending our Constitution. Congress needs to give McDonough all the tools he needs so that his team succeeds. This is not one of them.”

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