After leaving active duty, I applied for a Hill internship on a whim and found myself sitting at a desk in the front office, fielding weird phone calls and helping make sure the place was ready to go when the “adults” arrived at work. I dutifully filled the fax machine with paper, stacked the morning dailies, refilled the 5-gallon water dispenser and generally helped tidy the place up (“Hey, where should I put this Hustler?).
One of my ongoing projects (aside from finding my wife) was to sort the mail – ensuring press releases and constituent correspondence was sent to the right staffer, categorized by issue. My office mentor, a nice guy, innocently asked me, “Have you answered the phone before?”
I looked at him for a few seconds, blinked twice and said nothing. That awkward silence defined our relationship.
Slightly more complicated than answering the phone is the scandal embroiling the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Veterans Administration – the alleged falsifying of wait list records and the deaths of vets waiting for medical treatment. If I were king for a day, this is how I would begin to fix the VA:
1) Minus doctors, nurses, critical care-givers and janitors, I would start by firing every VA employee except members of the inspector general’s office, who have a decent handle on the numerous issues plaguing the department but were powerless to do anything about it except wave around reports that got ignored.
2) Next, I would force these newly unemployed bureaucrats to re-interview for their jobs. As Bob the Consultant asked in “Office Space” what would you say you do here?
If you actually add value to the organization and understand that you’re here to serve others -not to impede, obfuscate and flat-out lie – then you’ll have the honor of continuing to serve at the pleasure of the President.
3) Then, I’d pick a cadre of smart veterans who were recently disabled – in the wars of the past decade, not the famed conflicts of past generations – to re-write the playbook on how we apply for benefits, medical and psychological treatment, and how these issues get processed. Who better to expose and help fix the byzantine world of VA benefits then the people who have had navigate this maze over the past decade.
4) Finally, I’d fast-track for 100% disability benefits combat-related wounds over all other service-related injuries and maladies. You may ask, “Don’t we already do that, Chairman?” Unfortunately, no – the system is horribly abused by veterans who “game” the calculation process and file claims for everything from a stiff back to a sore knee, when the closest they came to combat was watching “Saving Private Ryan” on the FOB. To further ensure the most critical cases get treated faster, vets with combat wounds from Iraq, Afghanistan and other places involved in the Global War on Terror get priority because of the sheer volume of cases. No offense to vets of conflicts including Desert Shield/Storm, Somalia, Haiti and Vietnam; we honor the sacrifices of past generations, but the wounds of the most recent generation of American warriors – traumatic brain injuries from IED blasts, recovery and therapy from lost limbs, and post-traumatic stress – should be prioritized for treatment over the normal maladies that afflict our aging vets.
This problem is systemic, not “anecdotal.”
(Editor’s Note: If you wanna fire me up in a hurry, tell me something is “anecdotal” – based on personal accounts rather than facts or research. It has become a condescending way of telling the common-sense man, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, so run along.” A dozen car accidents in the same place might just be anecdotal, or the sign of a terribly designed intersection. A dozen punches to your face might also be anecdotal of a belligerent asshole – or maybe you’d like to do some more research.)
This is an issue far beyond the realm of one individual, so one thing I would not do is fire VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff who, prior to the invasion of Iraq, famously told Congress it would probably take several hundred thousand troops to quell unrest in the country – then was ostracized by Donald Rumsfeld before being forced into early retirement. (Shinseki was wounded three times as a young officer during the Vietnam War, by the way – shrapnel to the face and chest from a mortar explosion, a broken arm in a helicopter crash and a landmine that blew off most of his right foot).
The deck has been stacked against him and every VA secretary who has tried to slash red tape and streamline benefits processing from application to receipt. After all, only now are we trying to ramrod through Congress a law that gives the VA secretary the authority to fire or demote senior executives for performance problems.
Sounds like a great project for a summer intern. Any takers?
I better answer the phone now.