There have been many hearings since issues at the various Department of Veterans Affairs facilities first made it into the public consciousness. Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who was Army Chief of Staff when I was on active duty, resigned once the scandals began to unfold. Even though interim leadership took the helm, and Bob McDonald became the new Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs some time later, not much has changed in the way of what can be done to improve the well-being of veterans and transitioning service members. Many of the Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) have outlined plans for what needs to be done. Sure, some legislation gets passed here and there, but ultimately, what is actually being done to change the underlying infrastructure of the bureaucracy?
Plans are useless without execution.
The VA provides many services to veterans, dependents, spouses, etc., and when the scandals were finally brought to light, after probably going on for many years beforehand, the needle tipped more towards changing things for veterans rather than maintaining the status quo for criminally negligent activities. Yet, viewing that gauge makes someone who wears the uniform, or those who used to, wonder why the needle stayed pretty much to the left, when it should have been right of the middle, especially as advances in software and medical technology began to take hold.
Military applications have often brought advances in science and technology for the rest of the world. As defense contractors and other government agencies develop new products and services to work with the active military (including guard and reserves), supporting technologies should have been implemented in tandem so the transition out would be smooth and seamless. What we’ve seen has been anything but. From officials not being fired but merely being placed on paid administrative leave to facilities being hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, the government is taking a hard look at what can be put in place to help the ever-growing population of veterans even with budgetary constraints looming.
Simply, when management (not leadership) at the top is ineffective, the problems either trickle down or there’s a deluge of issues, and the people who suffer are at the very bottom – veterans. The men and women who are in the middle, between having served actively in some capacity and now subjected to the behemoth of a bureaucracy that is the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Yet, we take care of our own, and older veterans in various VSOs have stepped up to the plate. They’ve done the legwork to navigate many of the administrative nightmares created in mazes of paperwork at the VA. While this is a very noble action on behalf of veterans everywhere, the practicality of it has a shelf life. Those same veterans are aging, and one of a few things has to happen. Younger veterans need to step up to the plate, or the VA needs to completely remodel and rebuild the bureaucracy to include the crumbling digital infrastructure it continues to be built upon.
A good comparison for the chaos created by the lack of technological support in the VA looks something like this. In 2009, my unit deployed to Iraq. This was my first deployment with a National Guard unit. My only deployment prior to this was with 3rd Brigade, 2nd ID, more specifically the 5/20th Infantry Regiment. Conditions back then in 2003 were significantly worse than they are now, although a lot of my fellow soldiers were living in hardened tents. The space where the S6 was had hundreds of feet of Cat 5 (Ethernet) cable strung everywhere thanks to the prior active duty unit. So, if a cable got cut or there was a network problem, it took many more hours than necessary to trace the cable or fix the problem. Which meant, another cable needed to be run somewhere else. You couldn’t gut the entire network, not with full-spectrum combat operations happening simultaneously.
Given the aforementioned issue while we were deployed, think of the parallel to problems at the VA. Paper records need to be scanned in. Handwriting can’t be read. Records were purposely destroyed or lost. The VA doesn’t have the digital capacity to support everyone and the systems in place to maintain continuity of information or transfer data. The parallels are easy to see. Additional time and money are spent, unnecessary effort and personnel are used, and like the crumbling foundation, an unstable house is built.
Veterans need solid structure - from leadership to the services and platforms that support them. As more time goes by and we lose more of our brothers and sisters to ill health, suicide, or natural aging, who will step in to take their place and take care of those who need it most? We will make moves to secure the future for all those who wear the uniform.
And the future is closer than we think.
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