Look beyond Walter Reed

Charles D. Brown is a retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and 2006 Democratic candidate for Congress in California’s 4th District

Behind the revelations about Walter Reed Army Medical Center is an ugly pattern: chronic neglect of veterans and their families by politicians who will stand in front of soldiers during an election year, but won’t stand behind them when it counts.

Walter Reed is the tip of the iceberg. Skyrocketing rates of homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse, suicide and divorce among veterans past and present (often linked to service-connected psychological scars), as well as the growing delays at Veteran’s Administration hospitals and mental-health clinics, increased VA fees and co-pays and the expanding backlog of benefits claims are a national disgrace.

There’s no question that the staff at VA and Department of Defense facilities do the best they can with limited resources. The problem is systemic—a direct result of caring for veterans on the cheap.

VA caseloads have increased—6 million in 2001; 8 million in 2006. The federal response has been Hurricane Katrina-esque at best—veterans’ services were under-funded by more than $2 billion in each of the past two years; per-veteran mental health spending has decreased nearly 30 percent over the past decade; and, earlier this year, the Bush administration proposed cutting VA spending again in 2009.

The failure of Washington politicians to keep promises to service members led me and more than 70 fellow veterans to run for Congress in 2006. The continuing pattern of neglect leads me to believe that many of us will be back in 2008.

As a Vietnam veteran with a son soon to deploy on his fourth rotation in Iraq, I believe that the greatest threat to our troops’ morale and our nation’s security is elected officials who make tax cuts for billionaires and oil companies (as well as their own pay raises) a higher priority than properly equipping our military, repairing and maintaining health-care facilities for wounded soldiers and providing the resources needed for the VA to properly care for the tsunami of need they are facing.

Veterans aren’t looking for a handout, the select firing of a few scapegoats or a new “White House Commission” to study the problem until the media spotlight moves to something else. They want the quality care they’ve earned and deserve.

Veterans have kept their promise to America. Now it’s America’s turn. Results speak much louder than words.