Last week, I joined the American Legion in calling for the resignation of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Gen. Eric Shinseki. This was not an easy decision. Secretary Shinseki has served America honorably for decades, but given the scandalous way in which our veterans have been treated over the past several years, drastic measures are clearly needed.
The public has recently been made aware of extensive problems at the VA, but those who have been watching the VA have seen these problems building and worsening for years. The backlog in wait times and benefits for our veterans has exploded from about 150,000 in 2009 to over 600,000 in 2013 despite previous GAO, Inspector General and Office of Medical Inspector reports drawing attention to the growing crisis. Now there are accusations that some veterans were placed on secret waiting lists and died before they could even get a doctor’s appointment. USA Today was right to call these failures of leadership a “national disgrace.”
Given the stark nature of the problem, it is shocking that no one in Washington — from the Obama administration to leaders in Congress — has sounded the alarm on this problem or set forth a serious strategy for how to fix it. What we need now is leadership and accountability. We have neither, and that is why Secretary Shinseki — who has led the VA for the last five years — should resign or be fired. Enough is enough.
These issues are deeply personal for me. I serve as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, and for the last two decades I have had the tremendous honor of training, leading and serving alongside Alaska’s and America’s Marines. That is why from the moment I launched my campaign for the U.S. Senate in October I have focused on our sacred duty to ensure our veterans get the respect and care they have earned. On Veterans’ Day last November, my campaign released its first policy proposal called the “Promises Delivered Project” which highlighted Washington’s failure to honor its commitments to our veterans and proposed ways to stem the tide of incompetence.
Incredibly, Sen. Mark Begich has barely acknowledged that there is a problem. He seems to view himself as a bystander to the crisis facing America’s veterans. “If there’s a problem,” Senator Begich said, “they [the Obama Administration] need to fix it.”
This is an astounding statement coming from a senator who represents 77,000 Alaska veterans and sits on the Veterans Affairs Committee. There clearly is a problem with mountainous backlogs and unacceptable wait times for our veterans, and it has gotten considerably worse in Sen. Begich’s five and a half years in Washington.
Indeed, the Democrats in the Senate supported a budget deal last December that eviscerated retirement pay and benefits for military members — the very men and women who have been fighting and dying for us over the past two decades — while leaving the retirements of all other federal workers untouched. Only after several weeks and constant pressure from national veterans groups and my campaign did Senator Begich change his vote, cynically holding a press event to celebrate fixing a harm that he helped create.
Now that there is national attention on the disgraceful treatment of our veterans, I predict Sen. Begich and his Democratic allies will introduce new bills to try to address the crisis — bills that will go nowhere, but will give them cover to say that they are doing something. Harry Reid and his supporters in the Senate are very good at this kind of legislative maneuver.
But this is not leadership. Talk, press releases, and bills that go nowhere, will not help Alaska and America’s veterans. Real leadership requires decisive, immediate action. What we need is a senator who will stand up to the Obama Administration and demand a change in leadership and strategy at the VA. Unfortunately, what they have now is a senator who has supported President Obama and his cabinet through every failure, misstep, and error in judgment.
• Dan Sullivan is a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves.