The Department of Veterans Affairs has calcified under Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired Vietnam general, some post-9/11 veterans and advocates claim -- causing vast numbers of young, ex-combat troops to lose faith in the agency’s “Pony Express” pace.
Shinseki is scheduled to testify Thursday before a Senate committee on “the state of VA health care,” following allegations that at least 40 veterans died while on a secret waiting list at the VA hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. Employees at other VA health facilities also have admitted they were coached how to “cook the books” to hide true patient wait times.
The American Legion planned to hold a town hall meeting on VA healthcare issues on Tuesday evening in Phoenix.
“There’s an old saying that VA is supposed to stand for veterans advocate. But too often, it ends up standing for veterans adversary,” Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), told NBC News. “Shinseki has not repositioned the VA in a way where we feel like VA is a veterans advocate.”
Since Shinseki became VA chief in 2009, numerous younger staffers have departed high posts at the agency, creating a drain of tech-savvy, media-astute professionals, Rieckhoff said. Among those he listed were Peter Levin, VA’s ex-technology chief, and former Assistant VA Secretary Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs in a 2004 Army chopper crash in Iraq and now holds a seat in Congress.
“If you are under 45 and you understood technology, you’re probably not there anymore,” Rieckhoff said. “So this culture of old retired generals has calcified. As somebody who represents this community, I look up there and I don’t see any of our guys anymore (in VA leadership). That’s a problem.
"There’s an old saying that VA is supposed to stand for veterans advocate. But too often, it ends up standing for veterans adversary."
“It also drives their failure to understand the urgency this generation is in. We don’t work off of (U.S.) Post Office timelines. We work on Amazon timelines. That’s our expectation: to have an Amazon level of customer service, not the Pony Express,” he said.
IAVA is polling its membership of 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their supporters to gauge whether the organization wants to follow the lead of the American Legion, which on May 5 called for Shinseki to resign. That surveying has determined that younger veterans are “overwhelmingly outraged” at the VA’s overall condition, Rieckhoff said.
NBC News asked VA officials to comment on Rieckhoff’s assertions. In response, Victoria Dillon, a spokeswoman for the department, referred to a statement released Monday by Student Veterans of America, calling for Shinseki to stay, in part, because he successfully ensured that 1.2 million student veterans have received more than $40 billion in government-paid tuition and benefits.
Some veterans, however, contend that a wide breach has developed between Shinseki’s VA and too many younger ex-service members.
“Something we have learned in this world is that if we veterans don't help each other, no one else will,” said Andrew O’Brien, 26, a former Army convoy gunner who served in Iraq during 2008 and 2009, surviving an enemy explosion. He later was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and attempted suicide in 2010. Based in Austin, Texas, he now devotes his time to suicide-prevention work.
“When calling the VA, the service they give you is worse then that you get at the DMV,” O’Brien said. “As a young veteran myself, I do not feel as though the world owes me something for what I did. I signed up out of my own free will. But, the one place I do expect appreciation and respect more than anywhere is the VA -– and that's the last place you're going to find it.”
Many younger veterans with VA gripes have publicly shared their grievances -– before and after the allegations surfaced about the Phoenix patient deaths. NBC News is seeking veteran-readers to report their VA health-care experiences.
"Advancements in technology and medicine mean guys like me never would have made it home from Vietnam. Twenty years from now, it may be laser injuries."
But due to an ingrained sense of military duty, other ex-troops carefully measure their words when asked to assess whether the agency has lost contact with younger veterans, as the IAVA leader claims.
“I’ll make a statement. It’s non-political. I look at things from an evolutionary standpoint,” said Brian Mancini, 35, who served two Iraq tours as an Army combat medic, suffering severe head wounds and losing his right eye in an enemy bomb blast.
He comes from a long lineage of military men. And medicine –- whether private or VA -– has historically played catch-up with the latest battlefield horrors, said Mancini, who operates a Phoenix-based foundation, the Honor House, offering an array of services to wounded warriors.
“The (VA) system needs to evolve to the conflict and the generation, the ailments we’re suffering from. Advancements in technology and medicine mean guys like me never would have made it home from Vietnam. Twenty years from now, it may be laser injuries,” Mancini said.
“There’s going to be a constant whiplash between generational conflicts if we don’t adapt to the systemic injuries on the battlefield. I’m not laying blame to one way or another. What we have is a serious gap in the system that can help treat those injuries through a lack of understanding. It's just where we are at this point in time.”