The first to die from Arkansas was Michael Vann Johnson Jr. of Little Rock. He was a medical corpsman 3rd Class, assigned to the 3rd Marine Detachment. “A big kid,” his sister was quoted as describing him, full of life and fun, dedicated to his mission.
It is big kids — Johnson was 25 — who fight our wars, and die in them. It was a piece of shrapnel from a grenade, the thing that killed Johnson on March 25, 2003. He was caring for wounded comrades when the explosive detonated. An Associated Press dispatch reported that his mother had received a letter from him shortly before his death. He wrote: “Mom, I love you, and don’t be afraid if I don’t return, realize I’m in heaven with God.”
More than 100 of his fellow Arkansans in uniform would fall after him, in Afghanistan and Iraq; the exact number of fatalities is difficult to determine from various databases, as is the number of wounded. But we know the dead exceed 6,000 in the two theaters, and the wounded many, many more. And we know most of them were big kids, however, as some 60 percent of casualties occur among personnel aged 18 to 30. Big kids — but they were men and women, volunteers every one. And we know that many of those thousands of former service personnel will require, and are fully entitled to, postwar treatment of wounds and injuries suffered in the course of their time in uniform. It is not simply a contractual obligation between government and soldier, sailor, airman and Marine but a matter of national honor. Or, perhaps, dishonor.
For we now know, also, that the Department of Veterans Affairs not only has been unable to cope with the decade-long surge in demand for clinical care that the two wars have imposed on it but that some — some — VA personnel cooked the books to make it appear that appropriate treatment was being provided when it most definitely was not, or was being provided late, or in piecemeal fashion, inadequate.
(Here I should note that my initial inquiries have yet to yield any evidence that the VA’s facilities in Arkansas — the two in Pulaski County and a third in Washington County, plus some satellite clinics around the state — or their personnel have been implicated in any maltreatment or misadministration. But stressed? That’s something else).
As in so many such scandals the first question that should be asked is, Why we are scandalized? The second question is, Who is truly to blame?
From its founding nearly a century ago as the Veterans Bureau, it and its successor incarnations have been wracked by one scandal after another. So haphazard was its stewardship that Congress abolished it and replaced it with something akin to its present structure. Practically every president since Harry Truman has had to wrestle with disclosures of substandard care and management caprice. Some veterans died due to mis-, mal- or non-treatment. Waiting times for appointments or follow-up care sometimes ranged from two months during the final year of Bill Clinton’s presidency to six months in the third year of George W. Bush’s tenure. The continued withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan certainly will lessen the future patient load, but not the moral obligation to those who do not leave unscathed.
An Arkansas aside: the former Veterans Administration became the Department of Veterans Affairs, a Cabinet-level agency, under legislation sponsored by former Sen. David Pryor. The VA and its clients could press their case directly to the president, Pryor said, because they now would have “a seat at the table.”
Turns out, it’s beds veterans need. And doctors and nurses and rehabilitation specialists, all sorts of skilled clinicians. Which is another way of saying the Veterans Department needs money, more of it, now and in the future. Alas, the veterans, and the medical personnel responsible for seeing to their medical needs, do not control the budget process, neither recommendations for funding nor appropriations. A president proposes, a Congress disposes.
So when you hear senators and representatives express shock and outrage at the shenanigans, and presidents contend they are “mad as hell” about the situation, remember who really runs the Veterans Department. Remember, too, who elects them. And then ask how much we are willing to pay to satisfy that debt of honor.
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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.