San Francisco Chronicle – While many have jumped on the bandwagon to call for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation, we do not want to see the progress his administration has made come to a grinding halt. Swords to Plowshares, in our dual role as direct service provider and advocate, has protected the rights of veterans for 40 years. We have never been shy about criticizing the Department of Veterans Affairs when it has failed to adequately meet the needs of veterans. In fact, since the 1970s, we’ve unapologetically been plaintiffs in four lawsuits brought against the VA — putting our funding and reputation on the line. We know when to blow the whistle.
Yet ousting Shinseki now will surely destroy the progress made under his leadership.
Prior to Shinseki’s appointment in 2009, the VA did nothing to help homeless veterans secure permanent housing. Shinseki boldly pledged to end veteran homelessness by 2015 – an effort that seemed impossible when he announced it in 2010, but has become a real possibility today. Under Shinseki’s leadership, the VA launched two new programs to help formerly homeless and at-risk veterans secure permanent housing and prevent eviction.
Locally, we have been able to leverage these programs to help alleviate veteran homelessness. San Francisco — even with high rents — achieved a 22 percent reduction in veteran homelessness between 2011 and 2013 by securing permanent housing for aging, chronically homeless and “hard-to-house” veterans. Key local leaders and unprecedented collaboration among agencies and individuals played a huge role. Undoubtedly, we would have many more homeless veterans in our city if it weren’t for Shinseki’s bold commitment and first-ever addition of permanent housing funds.
That said, there are still issues within the VA that urgently need to be addressed. We cannot downplay that veterans in the Bay Area wait, on average, more than 600 days to have their initial benefits claim reviewed. We cannot ignore that serious malfeasance has occurred within VA hospitals across the nation. Yet these issues are not just five yearsÖ in the making. They have persisted for decades with little to no interest from the public.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 24-hour news cycle opened the public’s eyes to long-time patterns of neglect and forced us to scrutinize the broken systems that our veterans have relied on — a system that Shinseki’s administration inherited. Problems within the VA are deeply rooted in a bureaucracy that historically has ignored the obligations to our veterans that we as Americans have undertaken. Care for veterans and failures within the VA were not newsworthy until the scandal at Walter Reed Medical Center broke in 2007, two years prior to Shinseki’s appointment.
Shinseki’s bold vision sets him apart from all previous VA secretaries. The president should keep him in office to finish his term.
Shinseki should take the same kind of bold action that he showed with the VA homeless programs to reduce the backlog of disability claims and improve medical care. Shinseki should make a serious investment in attracting and retaining excellent VA staff who are committed to caring for our veterans. Veterans’ care is, after all, the true cost of war.
We Americans should hold Shinseki and his staff accountable to promises made to improve services and programs, but give up the political witch hunt.
Michael Blecker, Executive Director
Michael Blecker has been associated with Swords to Plowshares since 1976, only two years after its founding in 1974 by a group of Vietnam veterans and VISTA volunteers at the Veterans Administration in San Francisco. He is a co-founder of the California Association of Veterans Service Agencies, the National Association for Homeless Veterans, and a founder of the Coalition for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans.
Mr. Blecker served in the U.S. Army combat infantry in Vietnam from 1967 to 1970. He holds a J.D. degree from New College of California School of Law (1980) and a B.A. degree with honors from UC Berkeley.
Source: Op-ed originally published by the San Francisco Chronicle.