This morning I attended Secretary Shinseki’s speech at the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans 2014 Conference in Washington, DC, just a few hours before his resignation was accepted by the President of the United States. During his speech, I heard former Secretary Shinseki take full responsibility for this latest debacle in the care of our nation’s veterans. He apologized, stating that VA employees had treated veterans “dishonorably.”
While we agree with Shinseki’s assessment, he was successful in crucial ways, too. In his five years leading the VA, veteran homelessness declined by 24% mainly through two innovative and successful veteran housing programs, HUD-VASH and Supporting Services for Veterans and Families, making Shinseki the first VA Secretary to include veterans on the street as part of the VA mission. He expanded Veteran Treatment Courts throughout the country to address meaningful treatment alternatives to incarceration for our veterans who have psychological and cognitive wounds from their military service. Benefits for Agent Orange claims were expanded under his direction. Shinseki also made meaningful progress in reducing what seemed to be an insurmountable claims backlog.
Accountability is important, as the VA Inspector General’s reports released yesterday indicated — one cannot fix a system without knowing how it’s broken. However, we must not allow ourselves to be distracted from the problems that still remain, like veteran homelessness, lack of access to health care, and delay and errors in benefits. All of these problems can and must be fixed.
I strongly urge our elected representatives and our community to keep the forward momentum which began under Shinseki’s watch. Relieving one department secretary of his duties will not affect the change our veterans need. It will take all of us, together. In particular, it means no more legislative obstruction of important veterans’ bills. It means fully funding and staffing those innovative veteran housing programs that are working. It means choosing as the next VA leader one who is caring, innovative, technologically savvy, and has demonstrated leadership in organizational change management.
We must keep the bright light and focus on issues that are being overshadowed by media circus. Our focus will remain on ending veteran homelessness and getting our veterans the care they have earned to heal their wounds of war. After today, our expectations of VA leadership, current and future, are even higher. We expect real oversight, real cultural change and real action, not just hope and trust.
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 (1974).