As a Vietnam-era Navy veteran who served as a DOD civilian in support of the troops in Afghanistan and the father of an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, I feel betrayed by the callous, secretive actions of the one federal agency that is supposed to put our best interests front and center.
That's because, like the rest of the federal government since the days of the Civil War, the VA is supposed to give veterans preference in hiring and promotions when their skill levels and expertise are comparable to non-veterans. But the VA has turned this on its head, practicing what can only be described as veterans prejudice.
Here's what the VA is doing: Over the past two years, low-wage employees who provide vital support services within the VA health care system, including patient support assistants, medical record clerks and transportation assistants, have been subjected to unfounded and arbitrary downgrades. The majority of the public servants in these positions are veterans, women and minorities.
This is actually a double betrayal: First, to the veterans whose quality of care will suffer as a result, and second, to veterans working at the VA who have found their already low pay cut even further and their vital contributions disrespected.
In response, a coalition of veterans and public servants including my union, the American Federation of Government Employees, launched a series of public protests.
This got the VA's attention. Soon, its human resources management office issued a letter calling for a "temporary stand down on changes to lower grade actions," effective immediately. Problem solved, right?
Wrong. In yet another betrayal, we recently learned that the "stand down" does not apply to those already victimized by the VA's misguided attempt to cut its budget on the backs of its lowest-paid employees. Anyone with a downgrade in process is out of luck. All the VA meant was that in the future, it would revisit the downgrade process. But it would continue to do so under a cloak of secrecy and without any input by representatives of VA workers.
What's needed, then, is for Congress to act immediately and impose a moratorium on all past, current and future downgrades until an open, above-board, rational process can be put in place for addressing the VA's budgeting needs.
The fact that this is happening at all is bad enough, but to occur at a time when demand for VA services is at an all-time high is appalling.
It has been estimated that up to 35 percent of veterans returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. More than half have received a possible mental health diagnosis. And more than 320,000 have traumatic brain injuries. A host of related problems, including substance abuse and suicide attempts, are common, exacerbated by high levels of unemployment.
Yet the VA is not meeting the skyrocketing need for its services. A study by the VA's inspector general found that in 2011, less than half of new patients received a full mental health evaluation within 14 days – the system's standard for care.
Moreover, a survey of VA mental health providers found that nearly 40 percent could not schedule appointments for new patients within 14 days. Perhaps most significantly, 70 percent said they didn't have enough staff to properly serve their patients – the same support people who have been downgraded.
This must change now. It is a scandal that our government is not meeting the needs of those who served our country in war. America has a moral obligation to help those who have served go on to live fulfilling, productive, healthy lives.
But there is also a practical reason to do this. As George Washington said, "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their country." In other words, we're shooting ourselves in the foot and making the recruitment of future volunteers that much harder due to the VA's failure to provide proper care and its mistreatment of the veterans who work there.
All Americans who care about justice, decency, accountability and our national security should tell their members of Congress to act today to stop the VA's downgrades and start demanding that the VA focus on meeting the urgent needs of our returning heroes.