Local members of Veterans for Peace gathered Thursday to voice concerns about the "massive under-funding, massive under-staffing and effort to privatize" the Veterans Administration that they said has been occurring for the last 15-20 years.
The VA currently enrolls 9.1 million of the estimated 21.6 million veterans living in the U.S.
Buzz Davis, an Army veteran who served in South Korea from 1967-70, said the VA budget hasn't increased enough to correspond with the country's growing number of veterans and its aging population. The U.S. has a propensity to forget its veterans after they return from war, he said.
"What we have is a massive meat grinder. We put in young men and women at the top of the meat grinder," Davis said. "The military, the Department of Defense, all these good politicians who never go to war but think war is just wonderful are grinding that handle on that meat grinder. And out of the bottom of that meat grinder comes men and women who are slightly messed up, or are dead. It goes on year after year. We’ve now been in almost 15 years of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are not learning. We lost in Vietnam, you can’t fight ideas ... you can’t shoot a bullet through an idea. Same thing in Afghanistan. Same thing in Iraq."
The group of veterans and activists spoke at the City-County Building in downtown Madison, detailing their own experiences getting health care after returning from military service. Many said the problems with the system aren't with the care providers, but with financially prioritizing war spending over veterans' care.
"It’s not that the people who work at the VA don’t care about veterans: they've been understaffed for years," said Will Williams, an Army Veteran who fought in Vietnam in the 1960s. "This was a problem that everyone should have seen coming. It’s not a political issue in the sense that one administration treated veterans better than the other, because none of them have done what they should have done. It seems as though when we go to fight, we get what we need, but once we return, it’s a different story."
Congress is currently considering bills aimed at reforming the VA. Legislation has been proposed that would allow veterans to seek private health care if they waited longer than a "standard" period of time for treatment. That bill would also allow VA leadership to fire department officials who underperform or are involved in misconduct.
Congressional reform is necessary, the local veterans said, if it comes in the form of increased funding and more accountability for upper management. But some are worried that the VA scandal and its proposed solutions are a prelude to privatizing the entire system.
Ian Smith, an Army veteran who served in the 1950s, was an orthopedic technician at the Madison VA Hospital until he retired. During his time there, he was the president of the VA Hospital Union Local 173 of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Smith said top-level management positions have grown over time while on-the-ground employees continue to lack the resources they need to do their jobs at VA hospitals. He questioned where politicians like the ones introducing the current bill before Congress were in years past, adding that the problem isn't a new one.
"I think that the VA system is a good system," Smith said. "Let’s not try to eliminate it, and certainly let’s not try to privatize it."