One-hundred-twenty years ago, Rudyard Kipling captured the plight of forgotten and neglected veterans everywhere and it is still spot-on today. He wrote:
"Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap;
An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.
Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?"
But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll."
For returning veterans, re-entry to family and community life is often daunting and sometimes impossible. The combined effects of service-related trauma, families that may have moved on and the simple process of finding a good civilian job can be an almost insurmountable challenge. Suicide rates are off the charts. For many, ongoing medical and related treatment and support are essential for survival.
Though some of us may forget the plight of those returning from service to America, we also give the United States Department of Veterans Affairs more than $160 billion a year to remember, treat and serve our vets. We are happy to do it. The VA is a well-funded 300,000 person bureaucracy charged with doing just that, but that bureaucracy has become self-serving.
Placing their own interests ahead of those they are well-paid to serve, some of those charged with making life-sustaining decisions to serve veterans in an appropriate and timely manner are instead helping themselves. There are recent revelations that some administrators at the top of the VA monolith illegally and clandestinely conspired to kept veterans waiting for medical services in order to win bonuses for themselves. Many veterans were frustrated, others went untreated and some died.
Although much has improved over time and many of those who work to serve veterans are caring individuals who are making a strong effort to serve patients, reports are showing that some at the top have chosen to not serve critically ill patients in a timely way. Then they lied and covered it up in order to receive pay bonuses. In essence, they killed people for money.
This is not only reprehensible and unconscionable, but it is a crime deserving of the maximum possible criminal penalties.
We have developed a societal immunity to government theft, graft, fraud and ineptitude. Those people who cost taxpayers billions or whose illicit behavior results in loss of life seldom suffer more than job loss, if even that. A few people may shake their heads, but few are aware of anything untoward as they remain either indifferent or unconcerned. Most people care more about who is dancing with which star or what celebrity doper falls off the rehab wagon for the umpteenth time.
Because we are not vigilant, those who are supposed to be served are shortchanged, sometimes with tragic results. We get only a fraction of the results and value that we should from many government programs and, in the worst instance, we kill people.
We should treat those responsible for the VA deaths as we do anyone else who kills people for money. If what is being alleged is true, those who are culpable should pay the same price as if they had used a gun or a knife to do the deed. The result, after all, is the same.
This is a national disgrace that all of us own until or unless we do choose to do something about it.
Meanwhile, Kipling's words remain as true now as they were when he wrote them in 1892:
"You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool - you bet that Tommy sees!"
Regardless of how the politicians or bureaucrats try to cover it up or spin it, Tommy still sees.
(Wallace is a member of the graduate faculty at Muskingum University, a board member at the West Virginia Access Center for Higher Education and a former health care executive.)