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As Shinseki Vows to Transform VA, a Look at “Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans”

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President-elect Barack Obama’s pick to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, retired Army General Eric Shinseki, vowed to transform the VA during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday. We speak with journalist Aaron Glantz, author of The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle against America’s Veterans. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President-elect Barack Obama’s pick to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, retired Army General Eric Shinseki, vowed to transform the VA during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday. Shinseki said he would reduce the long veterans healthcare claim backlog and merge electronic health records of the Pentagon and the VA.

    GEN. ERIC SHINSEKI: Through their service in uniform, veterans have sacrificed greatly, investing of themselves in the security, the safety and the well-being of our nation. They are clients — and I use that term particularly — not just customers, of our services. They are clients, whom we represent and whose best interests are our sole reason for existence. It is our charge to address their changing needs over time and across a full range of support that our government has committed to providing them.

    Second, results. At the end of each day, our true measure of success is the timeliness, the quality and the consistency of services and support we provide to veterans. We will set and meet objectives in each of those performance areas: timeliness, quality, consistency.

JUAN GONZALEZ: During the hearing, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii praised Shinseki for speaking truth to power in the lead-up to the Iraq war. In 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumseld essentially forced Shinseki out of the military for telling Congress that the US would need several hundred thousand soldiers to stabilize Iraq after the invasion. At the time, Shinseki was Army chief of staff.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now in San Francisco by independent journalist Aaron Glantz, who has been covering the stories of US military vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s author of the new book The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans and co-author of Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations.

Aaron Glantz, what do you feel is most important to understand right now as the Obama administration takes shape?

AARON GLANTZ: Well, I guess what I would say, Amy, is that for six years of war in Iraq, the Bush administration has done absolutely nothing to take care of the hundreds of thousands of wounded veterans coming home. And General Shinseki is really going to have his work cut out for him when he takes over, because, you know, we’ve had people brought into the VA, turned away, who have committed suicide after coming back from the war with post-traumatic stress disorder. We’ve had people redeployed to Iraq, even after they were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. We have 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans coming home with traumatic brain injury, physical brain damage. We have 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who have filed disability claims with the federal government, and all of this is going to be on the plate of General Eric Shinseki when he takes over at VA.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Aaron, a couple of years ago, there was a Washington Post exposé about the situation at Walter Reed Hospital. Has there been any improvement at all in the Bush administration in these final years after those exposés came out?

AARON GLANTZ: Well, I think, Juan, the important thing for your viewers and listeners to understand is that Walter Reed is not even a VA hospital. Walter Reed is a military hospital. And that was the shabby treatment that the veterans were experiencing when they were even still in the military. So, very little has been done at all for the veterans after they get discharged, when they go from Walter Reed back to their own communities. And in many cases, there is no medical services at all, because remember that many people serving in Iraq and Afghanistan come from rural communities where the VA doesn’t even have a hospital.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been writing a lot about homeless veterans. Can you talk about how many homeless veterans are on the street at this point and what you feel needs to be done?

AARON GLANTZ: Well, we have 200,000 homeless veterans in this country. On every night, 200,000 people who have put on the uniform and served this country sleep homeless on the streets. And I think the single most important thing that General Shinseki could do as head of the VA is to trust our veterans when they come forward and say that they’re wounded, because it’s the lack of that trust that causes our veterans to fall through the cracks and end up homeless on the street.

In my book The War Comes Home, I tell the story of Specialist James Eggemeyer of Stuart, Florida, who came home from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder, a back injury and a shoulder injury. He couldn’t hold a job, so he filed a disability claim with the federal government. And it took him eight months to have his disability claim heard. And during that time, he lost his house. During that time, he lost contact with his son. He had to move into his truck. He was self-medicating, because he wasn’t getting proper medical care, so he crashed his truck. And he was living homeless on the street less than a year after coming home from Iraq. And if General Shinseki would institute a policy at the VA where we simply believed injured veterans when they came home and they said they were disabled, then none of that would have happened. He would have recovered after he came home from Iraq, rather than ending up homeless on the street.

JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the things I’ve heard often, you’re mentioning this whole issue of recognition of the injuries, that soldiers are constantly confronted, even at VA hospitals, being able to get a recognition of the degree of their injuries. How would that be — how could Shinseki change that?

AARON GLANTZ: Well, imagine that you come home from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental wound, or traumatic brain injury, physical brain damage often caused by a roadside bomb. The first thing that you have to do just to get in the door at the VA is to fill out a twenty-six-page form where you substantiate exactly how you were wounded, where you get letters of support from your battle buddies, from your commanders. You subpoena your own Army records, often with the help of your congressperson. And you present to the VA a gigantic claim folder, which they then sit on for an extended period of time. And that’s just to get in the door. So we take our veterans when they’re most wounded and most vulnerable and exploit them by making them fill out a mound of paperwork just to get in the door.

Now, what Shinseki could do is, rather than hire more bureaucrats, which is what he told the Veteran Affairs Committee yesterday that he would do, he could get rid of this process, and he could institute a new process, which would be similar to the way the IRS handles our taxes, which is that you file your tax return, the IRS believes you, they send you your refund check, and later on, they go back and audit you. And I think most of your viewers and listeners would be surprised to know that our government is more hostile to our wounded veterans than the IRS is to taxpayers.

AMY GOODMAN: Aaron Glantz, what about the proposal by a military psychologist — it was reported in Stars and Stripes — that in May, he suggested that troops suffering from PTSD should be eligible for the Purple Heart, which would help remove the disorder stigma, the Pentagon rejecting the proposal?

AARON GLANTZ: Well, this is yet another sign by the Bush administration that they disrespect our service members who come home wounded. They didn’t want to give the Purple Heart to people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, because they were saying that a mental wound is different than a physical wound. They say a mental wound is a different wound than a physical one, which is a terrible thing — a terrible message for them to send, because the veterans coming home have trouble — you have trouble admitting that you have a problem. And now, they’re piling on top of that their refusal to admit on a systematic level from the government that PTSD is indeed an injury.

One of the things that we hope — that I hope that General Shinseki will do is do a presumption of service connectedness for veterans suffering from PTSD. In other words, if you served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you come home and you say that you have PTSD, that the VA should assume that you got that in the war, not from a auto accident, not from some experience growing up, but perhaps your experience seeing your buddies killed or your experience killing an innocent civilian, that those might be the incidences that caused you to develop a post-traumatic stress disorder. And I would be very hopeful that that would be a step that General Shinseki will take. But again, he wasn’t asked about that, either, at the confirmation hearing yesterday.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, in the last year or so, we’ve heard about the reports at least finally documenting the existence of a Gulf War disease for the Gulf War veterans. What is going to be the impact in terms of VA treatment of Gulf War veterans?

AARON GLANTZ: Well, this is another very important question. We are seventeen years after the Persian Gulf War of 1991, and veterans of that war are still fighting to get disability compensation and healthcare. And for the last seventeen years, up until about two months ago, the VA had said that Gulf War syndrome simply didn’t exist, and they called it, quote-unquote, “undiagnosed illness.” And one problem with that is if you call it undiagnosed illness, then there’s no way to treat it, because you’re pretty much throwing up your hands. So, General Shinseki has said that he will invest more money into research of Gulf War illness and how to treat it, which is positive — you know, a little bit late, seventeen years after the fact.

I think another question that we should be asking is, what is the, quote-unquote, “Gulf War illness” of the war that we’re involved in right now? Is it our troops’ exposure to depleted uranium, for example? Is it our troops — the pills that our troops were forced to take before they went into this war? Might those things have long-term effects on our Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans? Shouldn’t we get ahead of the curve this time and not wait until seventeen years after the war to begin to look at how to treat and compensate people who served in it? So these are all questions that I hope General Shinseki will look into.

President-elect Obama had a very good record as a senator. He has picked somebody who has a reputation for truth telling, because he stood up to Donald Rumsfeld before this war in Iraq. But it’s going to be a lot of work. And Shinseki and Obama are going to have to deal not only with the VA bureaucracy, but also our country’s apathy towards this war and our country’s fixation on the economy, on the situation in the Middle East. These are real issues, but we can’t forget about the 1.8 million Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who are coming back into our communities. And if we don’t deal with this now, we’re going to be looking at an increase in those statistics we were talking about at the beginning of this interview, the 200,000 veterans sleeping homeless on the streets of this country, the eighteen veterans who commit suicide every day in this country. This is our opportunity right now to nip this in the bud, make sure that the Vietnam experience doesn’t repeat itself.

AMY GOODMAN: Aaron Glantz, I want to thank you very much for being with us, independent journalist, well known as a Pacifica reporter, spent a good deal of time in Iraq. His new book is called The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans. And just to remember again, the man up to head Veterans Affairs, General Shinseki, testifying just before the invasion, saying that several hundred thousand soldiers would be needed to stabilize Iraq after an invasion, Paul Wolfowitz publicly rebuking him, saying his comments were wildly off the mark, in part because Iraqis would welcome America as liberators.

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