Memorial Day is an occasion to honor the sacrifices of Americans who gave their lives in service to our country.
But on the eve of that commemoration, we also would do well to keep in mind the hundreds of thousands of military personnel who continue to struggle with visible and invisible wounds incurred on our behalf.
We don’t doubt that local agencies here and in communities nationwide — people who deal directly with veterans — are doing what they can. But the inability of the Veterans Administration to work through the huge — and growing — backlog of disability cases involving present and former military personnel remains a source of shame.
The trouble goes back years, even before the scandal six years ago involving inadequate care at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center shocked the nation. Sadly, Walter Reed wasn’t the only military hospital where care was found to be substandard.
That has led to changes — in attitudes, funding and staffing — intended to cut into backlogs and improve the care of veterans. It hasn’t changed enough. Even Eric Shinseki, a well respected retired four-star general who vowed when he took over the VA to end the backlog by 2015, hasn’t been as effective as many had hoped.
According to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, more than 870,000 veterans are waiting for VA benefits they’ve applied for. More than 580,000 of them have been for more than three months. In some of America’s large cities, the wait can exceed a year and a half. No less troubling, the hiring of more than 750 claims processors since 2010 as well as a new $300 million computer system to process claims haven’t shortened the delays.
To be fair to the VA, its caseload has mushroomed. According to the Department of Defense, in a little over a decade, 2.5 million military personnel — active duty, Reserve and National Guard — have been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. About one-third of them shipped out more than once, including 400,000 who have served at least three deployments.
Not all of America’s combat veterans seek, or need, VA care. But a great many do. They volunteered to serve our country and went to distant, hostile lands when our nation called.
The least we can do is provide them and their families the care they need and deserve and do it in a timely manner so they can get on with their lives.