Don the (Healthcare) Burlap Sack

Military and veterans affairs leaders had yet another chance to don the burlap sack in a public display of faux (and unnecessary) contrition over military and veteran healthcare.

The 2009 Defense Forum, jointly sponsored by the Military Officers’ Association (MOAA) and the U.S. Naval Institute, consistently, a top-notch event, provide the stage upon which guests could display their inner conflict. At one moment, leaders might crow about what strides have been made on behalf of combat-injured veterans. The next, they stand with hands folded, solemnly looking down nodding as vitriolic accusations are hurled their way.

The ballroom at the Hilton Mark Center, Alexandria, Va., was filled with an estimated 500 in attendance for a day entitled “Coping with Unseen Injuries from Battlefield to Homefront.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen kicked things off, taking time out to address the gathering. He expressed frustration that DoD and the VA are not doing enough in the mental health arena. This seems to be a recurring theme. No one we’ve heard or read, including Ol’ Mike, will talk about this as a decades-old deficiency (and one that has greatly improved). An accurate treatment of the topic would lend credibility to a subject that seems more myth than fact.

Mullen’s was a burlap moment. While independent agencies have rated the VA medical system as one of the best managed-care systems in the nation, and the standards of military medicine are high, Mullen fed into the claims of a vocal minority—accurate or otherwise.

Through the course of the day, some in the audience told their stories. As gut-wrenching as they were, these sad, and often uplifting, vignettes seemed they might be exceptions to the thousands who go through the disability evaluation system each year. (We are reasonably sure more noncombat conditions are medically processed from the ranks than those from the battlefield. No one talked about them a decade ago, and they certainly seem of little interest now.)

Regardless, leaders seem reluctant to tout the standards of care of the VA and DoD, so they don burlap, cop to shooting Kennedy and admit they are the reason military medicine is the deplorable mess it is. (It’s not)

(We also like to call this the Kiley Factor after former Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley who stood firm in his defense of the Army in the aftermath of Walter Reed revelations. You may recall, Kiley’s approach proved disastrous. We directly link his public execution with the fear displayed by the current crop of public officials.)

On a bright note, the VA’s assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, Tammy Duckworth, recounts the good work done by the VA. Sadly she may be in the position to do so because of her injuries sustained as a Blackhawk pilot in Iraq that resulted in the loss of her legs. You go, Tammy.

We hope for the day the frightened, clinging to their star status, will stand unafraid, shed their burlap, and cease the insincere apologies and faux outrage. Maybe then false issues will fade and true challenges will move to the forefront.

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