by Mark Scheinbaum
Ameican Reporter Correspondent
Boca Raton, Fla.
August 13, 2003
AMERICA'S VETERANS AGENCY: A TEXTBOOK FOR FAILURE
BOCA RATON, Fla., Aug. 12, 2003 -- The Wall Street Journal deserves a Pulitzer Prize for today's report on the failures of the Veterans' Administration, but it won't get one.
It won't get one because the VA constituency is dead, dying, broken in body and/or spirit, and with a dwindling power base. Not many congressmen, investment bankers, CPAs, or college professors have wounded kids coming back from Iraq.
I spent about four hours scouring Standard & Poor's and other databanks to help give the average Joe and Jane a way to compare themselves to G.I. Joe and Jane.
This is fairly close:
What if a company such as AOL Time Warner, had 280,000 people signed up, processed, and ready for subscriptions or service or orders, and no one processed the orders?
The Veterans' Administration has a budget of $60 billion, actually larger than the total capitalization of AOL Time Warner, and there are 280,000 Americans that wear or wore the uniform of their nation who are waiting for disability rulings.
The Wall Street Journal told of one man's two-year struggle, still unresolved, for assistance after serving in Afghanistan. Readers get the impression that if this soldier's mom had not been a health care professional who knew her way through the VA maze, he'd still have nothing to support his wife and kid.
For those of us who never did more for the nation than max out a credit card or put a flag decal on our car, the truth of mismanagement, lost files, and growing claims in an administrative vaccuum are anectodal. A few of us watched as loved ones literally died while VA appeals, files, and forms were pending review.
Depending on whose numbers you use, the Greatest Generation is leaving us at the rate of 1,500 per week, many with survivors' disability benefits, or disability upgrades, dangling in eternity. It's almost as if the VA bureaucracy computes the likelihood of someone dropping dead before a claim is pressed or appealed.
Of course, public ignorance and rumor adds fuel to the flame. Although my dad had two Purple Hearts, decorations from the Normandy invasion, took a piece of shrapnel in his ankle to the grave, and awoke in a cold sweat screaming in horror for decades, Mom never sought an increase of his 10 percent disability.
"I understand President Reagan has ordered all benefits taken away from people who ask for an increase," she once assured me, using the "girls in the building" as her source.
It was only grudgingly, 13 years later, after three years of meetings and fighting. that Dad, with Parkinson's syndrome and an inability to walk, was upgraded to the 60 percent disability level.
The news media still counts the dead Americans in Iraq in the low hundreds. But the sick and injured, according to my sources in the military, are already in the thousands.
Based on the record of Gulf War I, the VA will see tens of thousands of legitimate service-related claims in the next few years. If there is no groundswell of shame and outrage, no political call for basic fulfillment of a nation's duty to those who serve, the 280,000 folks in the waiting room will have an awful lot - and I mean an awful lot - of company.
Around the United States, VFW Halls, and American Legion Posts are closing for lack of members, money, and interest. Meanwhile, in the board rooms, country clubs, university lounges, and corner bars, fewer and fewer Americans actually know anyone who is on active military service.
When I polled my three local daily newspapers - representing three of the largest media chains in the country - not one offered a reduced subscription price for servicemen and women who might want to keep up on "hometown news."
As a businessman, investor, and citizen, here's my warning - which is a lot more important than today's Dow Jones close: spend less time worrying about your own old age in a nursing home, and think about the precedent being set for 20-, 30-, or 40-year-olds who need VA benefits and health care yesterday.
Mark Scheinbaum, former UPI newsman, is chief investment strategist for Kaplan and Company Securities Inc., in Boca Raton, Fla.