Millions of Americans will mark Memorial Day on Monday at commemorative events and parades, remembering the nearly 22 million men and women who have died in uniform. What is often a solemn occasion for veterans, honoring those they served alongside, comes at a tumultuous time this year.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is under fire for claims that hospitals in Phoenix, Ariz., used secret lists to conceal wait times for primary care that surpassed the maximum 14-day period. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki revoked the more than $9,000 performance bonus recently given to the former director of the Phoenix VA health care system as the controversy erupted. Three officials have been placed on administrative leave amid claims, still under investigation, that the delays may have contributed to the deaths of 40 veterans.Now, 26 facilities are part of a larger review nationwide and Obama has said anyone found “cooking the books” will be punished. He dispatched his deputy chief of staff to Arizona to assess the allegations and oversee an assessment. Meanwhile, Shinseki pledged to fix lags in care that continue to shake both the department and the Obama administration.
“As we approach our observance of Memorial Day and its special significance to our nation, VA is re-doubling its efforts, with integrity and compassion, to earn your trust,” Shinseki wrote in a message to veterans before the holiday.
Obama has resisted growing calls for Shinseki’s resignation, but the scandal has rankled veterans’ groups.
“[Obama’s] long-overdue remarks gave outraged Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America members no reason to believe anything will change at the VA anytime soon. The public trust with the VA and Secretary Shinseki is broken,” the veterans group said in a statement this week. “These issues are not new. Problems surrounding unacceptable wait times, delays, and cooked books have been emerging for years.”
Still, the president urged Americans to ensure veterans receive the benefits and opportunities they deserve and have earned.
“As commander-in-chief, I believe that taking care of our veterans and their families is a sacred obligation. It’s been one of the causes of my presidency,” he said Saturday during his weekly address. “Now that we’ve ended the war in Iraq, and as our war in Afghanistan ends as well, we have to work even harder as a nation to make sure all our veterans get the benefits and opportunities they’ve earned.”
The 9/11 Memorial Museum opened to the public last week – a living memorial to the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001, when the United States was attacked by al-Qaeda. The museum includes 10,000 artifacts and 23,000 still images from the day. In the wake of the attacks, the United States went to war in Afghanistan where al-Qaeda and its allies were based. Two years later, the United States invaded Iraq. About 2.6 million veterans have returned home from those battlefields since 2001. More than 6,800 died in war zones, according to figures from IAVA.
“It’s a day to pause and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving…for me particularly, remembering all of the service members who have died since 9/11,” Iraq War veteran Ann Weeby, 33, of San Francisco, told msnbc.
Thirteen years and two presidential administrations later, the agency has failed to catch up and provide services to the former active service members. Some leaders have moved out of the spotlight in the years since, but others remain as advocates of the same policies that led America into a war now typically viewed as a massive strategic mistake.
Last September, Obama extended former President George W. Bush’s enactment of the Declaration of National Emergency, which began a week after the 2001 attacks. But he also said that “this war, like all wars, must end.” The House is set to vote as early as Wednesday on what would make that happen.
The complexities of care for U.S. veterans soared after troops began deploying to wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq in 2003. There are currently 820 VA community-based outpatient centers, 300 VA veteran centers, and 150 VA hospitals in the country, according to the most recent statistics from the department.
“That agency exists for the veterans, and when you have tens of thousands of veterans that are not receiving treatment either in their health care or in their benefits, that’s a big problem,” former Marine Cpt. Greg Jacob, who is now the director of policy at the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), told msnbc. “It’s not going to get any easier for the VA; there are going to be more veterans.”
In 2007, The Washington Post exposed decrepit conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland. Additionally, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder continue their struggle to make it a diagnosis recognized by all Americans. Sexual assault has become an epidemic for the military to curb.
Two Democratic senators, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, pushed through an unprecedented slate of reforms last year. The latest National Defense Authorization Act includes 36 sections that deal with sexual assault, and will take effect throughout the year.
Nearly 300,000 women have deployed to the Middle East to serve in roles previously only held by men. They comprise 10% of the veteran population in the country, but are the fastest growing group, according to VA data. Within the next decade, the department will be faced with the largest influx of women yet to arrive home.
“The thing is that all of those women that have served, and all the contributions they’ve made, they eventually come home. Every time the country recruits a soldier, they basically create a veteran,” Jacob said.
This year, veterans groups are taking to social media to encourage Americans to remember those who fell while in service.
IAVA, together with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, also hosted a ceremony on Saturday that honored each of the service men and women who died fighting for the country since 2001 by reading aloud the names of about 7,000 veterans.
“People don’t necessarily know what to do, and all we’re saying is, ‘just remember,’” said Weeby, emphasizing the importance of the communal pause since no one serves alone in the military.
“It’s just a way to remember everyone,” she added, “and a good reminder to step up and take care of those who have served and have come back and continue to serve our communities.”
Jacob, 44, served from 1994 until 2004 in various countries, including Bosnia, Liberia, Indonesia, and the Balkans. For him, the holiday is a time to reflect on his past experiences and to remember the contributions and sacrifices made by both his comrades who died in battle and active members who continue to serve.
“It’s an opportunity,” he said, “to stop and assess where we are as a nation and where things are within the veterans’ community.”