North Carolinas Republican Sen. Richard Burr generally isnt one to lose his cool or make foolish political decisions. So his attack on some veterans groups for failing to jump on the bandwagon calling for the firing of Gen. Eric Shinseki, head of Veterans Affairs, seems downright peculiar.
Burr had to know that the members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans and the Paralyzed Veterans of America tend to be people who are not afraid of a fight.
But an open letter from Burr to veterans in these groups was critical of the fact that theyre not falling in behind his demand that Shinseki, a four-star general wounded in Vietnam, resign in the wake of a growing controversy over veterans being forced to wait sometimes months for needed care from the VA. The agency has had other problems as well, most related to the increased need for services for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The criticism of Shinseki has been bipartisan. Former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Medal of Honor winner for service in Vietnam, has joined those calling for Shinsekis resignation, which seems to be inevitable.
But President Obama has taken an appropriately careful approach and resisted calls for Shinsekis dismissal. Shinseki, after all, did not create the delays in care, which are indeed inexcusable.
An understandable strain
Because of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA has had a net gain of 1.5 million patients in the last two to three years, many of them suffering post-traumatic stress disorders or brain injuries requiring complicated and lengthy care.
This has understandably strained the VA, which clearly is underfunded and understaffed in terms of physicians and other health care professionals. There are 152 VA medical centers and several hundred community care centers.
Burr, who has been a steadfast supporter of veterans, could have contributed more constructively to the debate over what to do about the problems by offering, for example, a bill to boost funding and personnel and investment in the system. Instead, he took the easier route of focusing on Shinseki in a not-veiled attempt to also attack President Obama.
The veterans groups the senator criticized didnt take his points lightly. One official with the Paralyzed Veterans of America told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, on which Burr is the ranking Republican, that the VAs problems are ultimately a reflection of insufficient resources that this administration and previous administrations have requested. In other words, Congress shares the blame.
Expertise in war wounds
Indeed, as The New York Times reported, some of the concerns among veterans groups other than the traditionally conservative American Legion, which agrees with Burr are that if Congress addresses the problems with the VA, some sort of privatization may be the result, with veterans being sent outside the VA system as one step toward decentralizing care.
That, in the minds of some veterans, is really problematic because the VA has expertise in war wounds and their treatment that other facilities do not have. And Kerrey, who credits VA treatment with saving his life after he was wounded in Vietnam, has defended the quality of care he and others have received.
In this area, one need only go to the VA facility in Durham, across the street from the Duke University health care complex, to see the excellence in VA care helping veterans every day. The same can be said of many other facilities.
Thats why veterans organizations are leery of anything that might fundamentally change the system of care provided to vets.
Make no mistake: There is no alternative to funding the VA adequately now and in the future. America makes a covenant with the men and women who serve in the armed forces that, in exchange for their service which for many includes risking their lives every day they will be cared for by their grateful county.
The job of Congress is not to reorganize the VA or politicize it but to stand for it, to support it and to keep that covenant on behalf of the American people.