Reports that part of Walter Reed Medical Center is a hellhole would lead many to believe that some news occurred. This is not new. America has treated veterans as second-class citizens in third-rate facilities for generations. The fact that squalid conditions were in Washington, right under the nose of the Bush administration and Congress, makes this a fresh scandal.
The indifference to veterans goes back at least to the "Greatest Generation" that emerged from World War II.
A veteran of the Army Air Force who contracted tuberculosis in Sicily was consistently denied disability benefits because the VA medical records building in St. Louis burned down. The VA refused to acknowledge that the tuberculosis was contracted through military service. He died in the Omaha VA hospital from cancer. His final moments were spent in the psych ward with vets suffering from delusional fits because the air conditioning didn't work in the cancer ward.
A veteran of the Battle of the Bulge relived his horrors in a small town in northwest Iowa. He went to the basement to drink his nightmares away. Call it post-traumatic stress syndrome, but there was no help for him. "I should have stayed home and played with the dog," he told us.
A veteran of the Korean War had his leg shot off. The Marine couldn't even get a cup of coffee on the medical ship crossing the ocean on his way home because he didn't have a dime. He had to fight constantly through his congressman to get surgeries and replacements for his artificial leg. "I should have stayed home and kicked the dog," he told us.
Veterans of the Vietnam War fought the government for years over health claims related to Agent Orange, a defoliant used as chemical warfare in the Southeast Asian jungles.
Just this week the Minnesota Veterans Home was fined by the State of Minnesota for offering care not fit for a dog.
So excuse us for not recoiling in amazement about government indifference toward veterans.
There will be lots of huffing and puffing but no one will blow the house down that operates this system of Soviet-style health care.
A veteran from Storm Lake must drive 60 miles to Spirit Lake or Fort Dodge to get his subsidized pharmaceuticals. A veteran cannot show up at the Mayo Clinic or Buena Vista Regional Medical Center with his VA card and get free health care. He or she must report to a place that is run like Walter Reed.
So we asked Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a veteran himself, why we treat them so shabbily. Why can't a vet get the same treatment at Mayo as someone with a golden health insurance policy?
Cost, Harkin replied. The VA is cheaper. And it shows, he agreed. He wishes he could do something about it.
We are nickel-and-diming veterans into lives of misery and substandard care when the cost of a single bomb dropped on Iraq would fix some veterans for life.
Harkin intends to look into our suggestion that veterans should be able to get free care at federally subsidized Community Health Centers. Why not at Mayo or the local hospital or the University of Iowa Hospitals or anyplace else a vet chooses?
Well, there's the cost. And there is the very real fear among veterans that they would get the shaft under a voucher system like they have under the existing, under-funded and under-staffed VA hospitals and clinics. The devil you know is better than the one you don't know.
That just simply will not do.
Supporting our troops is more than a yellow magnet on the back of your minivan. It's more than a slogan to be used to shout down opponents.
It means affording veterans the same care that a Saudi prince got at Mayo.
It means giving veterans the drugs they need at no cost right at home.
It means telling the truth and standing by it when veterans are overcome by Agent Orange or tuberculosis by curse of their duty.
It means spending less on high-tech anti-ballistic missile systems and more on the guy with one leg who has developed all sorts of complications from it.
It means that we must calculate the real costs of war that last decades after the final bullet is fired. The bullets keep coming from all those wars we wage and the vets keep ducking. Meanwhile we cluck our tongues at the latest sorry episode and march on to some undefined victory amid a busy calendar of Congressional hearings.
Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake, Iowa, Times, where a version of this appeared.
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