During a savage battle in Korea, his hearing was damaged after an enemy mortar shell exploded near his head. Lee’s platoon sergeant was killed by the same blast.
Communicating with his family helped make Lee’s final days bearable, so I emailed a Veterans Health Administration facility in Denver and told them his story.
A VHA technician responded almost immediately, directing me to overnight the hearing aid to his personal attention. I did and we received the device back two days later, FedEx priority, no charge for the repair.
I let the technician know how grateful Lee was to have the hearing aid back just in time to enjoy a last Christmas with his children and grandchildren. He died three weeks later.
Having experienced the VA at its very best, I was very disappointed to learn the news of its very worst.
America has sent its servicemen and women into countless wars, big and small. War’s cost doesn’t when the last warrior leaves the battlefield.
Because we have an obligation to those who served and bled, the Department of Veterans Affairs has grown into a behemoth that all modern presidents have struggled to manage.
In 1988, with nearly one-third of the U.S. population eligible for veteran’s benefits, President Ronald Reagan made the VA a cabinet-level post.
From 1995 to 2000, when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, the Veterans Health Administration began universal primary care for veterans.
At the same time, the VHA reduced acute care hospital beds by more than half and staffing by more than 10 percent, even though the VHA experienced a 100 percent increase in patients by 2000.
In 2003, just as he launched his disastrous invasion of Iraq, President Bush began cutting the funding for veterans healthcare benefits.
Treatment delays, which are at the heart of the current allegations, date back to at least 2000, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The Obama administration is absolutely responsible for recent failures, but calls for Secretary Eric Shinseki’s firing are premature pending an investigation by the VA’s inspector general.
“As a disabled veteran myself, there is no one I would rather have heading up the VA now, in this turbulent time, than Eric Shinseki … he is the best there is,” said former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, who served as the administrator of veterans affairs in the Carter administration.
Still, public anger is understandable. But there should be just as much outrage over Senate Republicans blocking legislation last February that would have expanded health care for veterans and paid for 27 new VA facilities.
Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s much-hyped budget would strip $11 billion from veterans spending just as a new generation of heroes needs the VA.
And then there are GOP efforts to curtail food stamps for nearly one million veterans.
Republicans in Congress can’t nickel and dime vets anymore.
The VHA needs the best health care management at whatever it costs. It takes talent to run an operation the size and scale of the VHA, not people willing to work for less money.
Invariably, you get what you pay for.
The VHA must also have quality facilities and clinicians; doctors, nurses and other dedicated health care professionals like that compassionate technician who helped Lee.
To clear the immediate backlog and improve care, last week Obama announced more veterans can get treatment at private hospitals.
June 6 marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy. We’ll once again praise the courage of the men who landed on French beaches and honor the sacrifice of those killed and wounded in that “great crusade.”
But it’s just lip service if we don’t back it up with first class health care for every veteran.
Kevin Foley is an author, writer and public relations executive who lives in Kennesaw.