America’s leaders are failing our veterans

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki speaks to the media following a meeting with US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (R) on February 5, 2013, at the...
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki speaks to the media following a meeting with US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (R) on February 5, 2013, at the...

This week, Mr. Smith is not going to Washington. But on the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq, Captain Hensley is. So is Captain Aaron Thorson. Along with Gunnery Sergeant Ed Schrank and Captain Will Simmons.

They are a new generation of activists that are traveling from Main Street USA to the hallowed halls of Congress to make their voices heard. And this time, they’ve got the Internet, over 200,000 IAVA members, and every American they’ve touched behind them. They landed in Washington with their passion and their love for country on their sleeves. CPT Melinda Russell even brought her service dog, Willow. Specialist Ann Weeby brought her 6-week-old son. Corporal Aaron Mankin brought a body covered with burns. And they all brought tremendous heart.

They are America’s combat veterans. And they believe, as George Washington once said, “When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.”

They served their country in combat. And now, they’re serving their country again in maybe the hardest battle yet. They are trying to change Washington.

These tough, brave, focused young men and women have had enough disappointment. America’s elected leaders are failing them, their families, and their communities. They’re fed up, and they won’t take it anymore.

So they’ve come from 22 states to deliver a simple message to the president: end the VA backlog. This is 2013, so there’s also a Twitter hashtag: #EndTheVAbacklog. And here’s an example of how it’s gone viral:

These dynamic veterans have seen their brothers and sisters struggle for healthcare through a claims backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs that has exploded by 2,000% since President Obama took office and now has nearly 900,000 disability claims pending. Read that line again. It’s not a typo. Hundreds of thousands of veterans and their families have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan to find themselves fighting a new enemy: red tape.

Last week, an investigative report revealed that red tape at the VA has left young vets in New York waiting over 600 days for benefits and care. It’s 619 days in Los Angeles. The average waiting period in almost every major city is over 500 days.

Returning vets filing claims for the first time are waiting on average 316 to 327 days for a decision. That’s almost an entire year that vets may have to pay medical costs out of pocket for injuries incurred during their service. That’s almost an entire year that veterans too disabled to work are living with no income.

Despite spending almost a billion taxpayer dollars developing a digital claims process, 97% of claims are still on paper. In fact, at one regional VA office in North Carolina, the weight of the paper files for claims was so enormous that it affected the structural integrity of the building. That’s ridiculous.

But through it all, our newest veterans have hope. Ten years after Iraq, they can see a brighter day. Because they won’t accept failure. They are hard-wired to get things done and to break through partisanship and bureaucracy. And to win.

Because while there may not have been definitive victories in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve had definitive victories for vets in Washington. They established a suicide prevention line in 2007. They passed a new GI Bill in 2008. Advocated for Advanced Funding in 2009 and the Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) to Hire Heroes Act in 2011. And they repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 2011. They didn’t do it alone, but they led the charge. And now, 16 of them are also serving in Congress–from both sides of the aisle. They are a force to be reckoned with. And they won’t stop until the backlog is ended and they win again.

So, Mr. President, they are calling on you. This madness has gone on long enough. If we can put a man on the moon, we can fix a broken paperwork system. It’s past time for you to stop defending Washington bureaucrats, and start defending our veterans and their families.

You ended the war in Iraq. You’re ending the war in Afghanistan. It’s time to finally end the VA backlog.