Are we a nation that values our veterans?
“To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan”
Veterans are dying from cancer at alarming rates. We could save their lives. But first, why is this being allowed to happen in the first place?
Throughout my eight years serving in Congress, the most calls for assistance that came to me and my office were from veterans — by far. Those calling for assistance with Social Security, Medicare, or other federal services paled in comparison to veterans calling for help, expressing great frustration with the federal government and the VA’s failure to provide the services and recognition necessary to those who ‘borne the battle.’ Along with advancing legislative initiatives, my team and I spent the bulk of our time and resources helping veterans and their families to get the care and compensation they were promised and deserve.
Adding insult to injury, the failures were and continue to be exacerbated by politicians who on Veterans Day pay lip service to those of us who’ve served with flower words expressing gratitude, but talk being cheap, turn their backs on our nation’s sons and daughters when we need them most. Sadly, this is nothing new. Many Vietnam veterans have fought for decades for basic care and recognition for cancers and illnesses connected to Agent Orange exposure. My generation of veterans are fighting these very same battles all over again.
This is unacceptable. The Department of Defense and the VA are not fulfilling their mandate.
During the second inaugural address by President Lincoln in 1865, the closing remarks of his speech crystalized our nation’s commitment to its veterans:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Those words, “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan,” were so prolific, that they would eventually become the motto for our Department of Veterans Affairs.
But if the harrowing statistics on veteran homelessness and suicides tell us anything, it is that our nation’s leaders have unequivocally failed at this mission. While our elected leaders in Washington are eager to start new counterproductive wars in other countries, new cold wars and nuclear arms race, the work of caring for those who wear or have worn the cloth of this country is too often an afterthought.
We must do better. As Americans, as patriots, as those who love our country — we must honor our veterans by making sure that none are left behind, that they’re always taken care of.
There are two main underlying issues that are never addressed. First, our government fails to treat veterans’ care with any level of urgency. The power of the Washington establishment is consolidated in such a way that most of the bills meant to address the needs of our veterans are never even brought to the floor for debate, let alone a vote.
While serving in Congress, I introduced more than 150 pieces of legislation addressing the needs of our veterans, and despite tireless efforts, less than 15% were even considered on the House Floor. Of those, just 11 bills made it to the President’s desk and became law. Unfortunately, my legislation to overhaul the way our VA tracks those exposed to toxic burn pits was not one of them.
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Millions of our veterans have been exposed to various toxic chemicals and materials, which have caused unthinkable suffering, disease, and death due to a lack of early diagnosis and treatment
The magnitude of this issue cannot be overstated.
This is bigger than exposure to burn pits. We have had over 4 million veterans serve after 9/11 in support of the Global War on Terror, and 96% have reported contact with these toxins while deployed. Since returning home, more than 279,000 have died from “unknown reasons” and over 520,000 have been diagnosed with cancer. An astonishing 93% of our veterans report returning from deployment with new medical symptoms. Sadly, the VA is failing to recognize and tackle this epidemic.
This brings us to the second underlying issue. Despite being the single largest hospital system in the country, our VA is a bloated federal bureaucracy that doesn’t put the wellbeing of veterans at the forefront. Too often, the best interest of the bureaucracy comes first.
Throwing more money at the VA will not solve these issues. The problem is failed leadership within the VA, Congress, and the White House.
There are many examples of this: one in which the VA rented three in-home use hospital beds for almost $875,000; whereas simply purchasing the beds would have cost them only $21,000. Veterans are constantly burdened by excessive wait times, complex claims and approval processes, and often not allowed to get treatment from providers who are close to where they live, or who are specialists in their particular disease or illness.
A shocking Inspector General’s report recently highlighted a group of veterans who were cut off from their PTSD and depression treatments by the VA because administrators were “overwhelmed with paperwork.” The psychiatrists of these veterans wanted them to continue treatment, but the VA disregarded these professional opinions and stopped approving care. Shortly after this treatment was cut off, at least one of these veterans tragically took her own life.
How many more veterans must die from preventable causes before our leaders step up and take action?
As a soldier and veteran of multiple deployments to the Middle East and to Africa, I’ve seen the cost of war and who pays the price. I've also seen heroes here at home — people who are stepping in to fill the gap where our government is failing. Great Americans who honor the sacrifices made by those in uniform, and have taken to heart what it means to never leave a fallen comrade.
I recently spoke with one of these great Americans on my podcast, The Tulsi Gabbard Show. Our shocking conversation was both maddening and heartbreaking.
My guest Chelsey Simoni is a veteran who decided to take matters into her own hands. This trauma nurse and former flight medic co-founded the HunterSeven Foundation, which has quickly become a leading non-profit to address the issues of toxic exposures and veterans’ healthcare. It is an incredible organization that is saving lives through critical research and innovative testing and care options to serve post-9/11 veterans, even catching diseases in the earliest stages before the onset of signs and symptoms.