Sacrificial Lamb: Why Shinseki’s Resignation Ensures Nothing Will Change at the VA

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In 1923, the head of the two-year-old Veteran’s Bureau, Charles R. Forbes resigned his post after massive fraud and corruption came to light. After literally choking Forbes by the throat in anger, President Harding appointed reformer Frank Hines as the head of the Veteran’s Bureau. Problem solved.

In 1945, President Harry Truman accepted the resignation of Hines, after the press began discovering poor care at overworked, understaffed VA hospitals. President Truman replaced Hines with General Omar Bradley. Once again, the problem was solved.

In 1955, Congress unanimously voted to institute a Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch, in order to streamline the Executive Branch’s operations and budget. They found massive waste and blinding incompetence, with wait times three times as long as “regular” hospitals. The Commission recommended sweeping changes. And finally, after 35 years, the problems with the VA were solved.

In 1969, Richard Nixon appointed Donald Johnson as the Administrator of Veterans Affairs. In his nomination speech for Johnson, Nixon said that Johnson’s “business experience would qualify him to handle the immense administrative problems involved in the Veterans Administration.” After the LA Times ran a series of articles criticizing the lack of care at VA hospitals, many protests by vets in the streets, and a study by the National Academy of Sciences found that 69% of veterans were receiving less than adequate care, VA Director Donald Johnson resigned his post in 1974. The Veteran’s Administration suddenly became miraculously efficient, and remained so until this day.

During his swearing-in as VA Administrator, Johnson’s replacement, Richard L. Roudebush, said “I know that we are going to solve all the problems that do lie in front of us.“ Roudebush came under criticism for slow processing of compensation claims, poor medical care, and stating that Vietnam Vets were “crybabies” because “they lost their war.” The National Veterans Resource project rushed Roudebush’s office, literally nailed the door shut behind them, and confronted him. As Roudebush was not forced to resign, and didn’t really care too much what the NVR had to say in the first place, nothing changed.

Robert Nimmo served as the VA head from 1981 to 1982. He referred to the chloracne from Agent Orange as “just a little teenage acne,” and referred to Veterans’ groups as “greedy.” After the press discovered he used a chauffeured limousine to get back and forth to work, spent $54,183 to redecorate his office, and used government funds to lease his expensive car, Nimmo resigned due to “compelling personal reasons.” And the VA problem was finally solved.

Looking back on the history of Directors of the Veteran’s Bureau, Administrators of Veteran’s Affairs, and Secretary of Veterans Affairs, we can see a pretty clear pattern emerge:

  1. The VA is incompetent/mismanaged/bloated/corrupt.
  2. The Press discovers it.
  3. The citizens are outraged.
  4. The executive branch realizes it’s much easier to sacrifice a lamb than actually change anything.
  5. The citizens go back to not really caring too much.
  6. Repeat

Well, America, you’ve had your sacrificial lamb. The media will soon drift away into news about Justin Beiber or the latest sex scandal in Washington. Midterm elections are coming, and soon we will hear the Republicans using the VA as a weapon against the Democrats, and the Democrats shifting the blame to Bush, or pointing to Shinseki’s resignation as proof the President was on the case. Both sides will stand beside veterans during press conferences and photo ops, saying “we must do something!” but offering no real solutions.

All we can really hope is that Americans remember that every single day politicians are on the campaign trail, an average of 22 veterans commit suicide, and between 130,000 and 200,000 are sleeping on the street or in homeless shelters. I hope they remember that real change isn’t something you can achieve quickly, but something that happens with a lot of time and a lot of hard work.

Don’t be appeased by the sacrificial lamb, America. This is far from over.

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