Above photo: Health Care for All Oregon.
Veterans running for office have never had a stronger personal brand or more political backing. To hold onto or win back seats in Congress, both major parties have recruited many candidates whose resume includes past military service. Across the political spectrum, various Super PACs have backed this effort to increase the veteran population on Capitol Hill. And one such group, the With Honor Fund, claims that electing more vets will help restore “public trust” in Congress and reduce “the extreme partisanship that has corroded our national legislature.”
With Honor is being funded by the richest man in the world, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. He and his wife have pledged $10 million to assist 33 Congressional hopefuls this Fall (19 Democrats and 14 Republicans). If elected, these Bezos-backed candidates have promised to avoid “hyper-partisanship” and embrace political “compromise,” for the good of our country and veterans in particular
My own experience, as a journalist covering veterans’ affairs, leads me to question this approach for two reasons. First, past military service does not insure trust-worthy—or even pro-veteran–behavior inside the Beltway, as revealed by the federal indictment of former Marine, Duncan Hunter Jr., a five-term Republican Congressman from Southern California.
Second, “bi-partisanship” has been the guiding principle of recent Congressional action adversely affecting the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), its 300,000 employees, and nine million patients. Former military men and women, in both parties, have jeopardized the quality of veterans’ care by embracing privatization of VHA services and leaving the government’s own hospitals and clinics for veterans increasingly under-funded and under-staffed.
This out-sourcing trend got a further boost in May when Congress passed the VA MISSION Act. Backed by veterans like the late Arizona Senator John McCain and Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton, the MISSION Act diverts billions of dollars from the VHA’s skilled and dedicated salaried workforce. It steers that money instead toward private doctors and for-profit hospitals, which, as studies document, have little experience treating veterans.
Nevertheless, on the campaign trail this fall, even Democrats like Montana Senator Jon Tester are touting the MISSION Act as a positive example of their willingness to compromise with President Trump (who, of course, has reciprocated by working hard to defeat Tester).
A Blue Falcon
During an on-going debate about the future of the VHA, many a patriotic speech has been made, from the White House on down, about how much everyone in Washington loves and cares for veterans. But actions speak louder than words—and even a personal biography brimming with past military heroism can be deceiving.
When Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Duncan Hunter first ran for his father’s old seat in Congress ten years ago, he highlighted his three tours of combat duty, including participation in the battle for Falluja. “The U.S. Congress needs more military veterans, people who have walked the walk,” Hunter told the press. On the basis of his Marine credentials, he joined the House Armed Services Committee after getting elected and, more recently, became a rabid Trump supporter. Yet, according to the NY Times, it didn’t take Hunter long to also become “a ‘blue falcon,’ military slang for someone willing to sacrifice his friends for his own benefit.”
That behavior manifested itself in Hunter’s approach to constituent service—and, later, his alleged misappropriation of $250,000 in campaign funds. According to fellow veterans interviewed by the Times, their Congressman would “intervene in cases when a veteran was in trouble—as in one case when a veteran ended up in a Mexican jail. But, when it came to supporting military-friendly policies Mr. Hunter did little, they say.”
For example, despite constituent appeals, Hunter would not push hard for a requirement that military personnel facing less-than-honorable discharges (and denial of VHA benefits) be given a prior mental health assessment by the Defense Department. Instead, Hunter started using campaign funds to cover his own lavish personal spending, listing some improper payments as gifts for “wounded warriors,” according to his 47-page indictment. Since being charged with fraud and campaign finance violations, Hunter has gallantly tried to shift the blame to his co-defendant and wife. His lawyer now argues that evidence of Hunter’s own “infidelity, irresponsibility, or alcohol dependence, once properly understood…does not equate to criminal activity.” (So much for Semper Fi!)
Chewed Up and Spit Out?
Needless to say, such scandals, involving any House member, hardly boost public confidence in Congress. Veterans, in particular, expressed anger about Hunter’s alleged betrayal of their trust. Surprisingly, Ammar Campa-Najjar—the 29- year old Latino-Arab-American Democrat running against Hunter—took the more exculpatory view that his opponent was a Marine who “never made it back from the battlefield,” a man who “lost his way” in Washington, which “chewed him up and spat him out.” (As their race tightens, Hunter has reciprocated by smearing Campa-Najjar as an Islamic terrorist sympathizer and national security risk.)
If Hunter’s alleged misconduct on the job and resulting legal difficulties are indeed related to post-combat behavioral changes, he is not the first veteran, in public life, to display such problems. The Times reported on Oct. 3 that “Jason Kander, a war veteran who became a rising star in the Democratic Party abruptly dropped out of a Kansas City mayoral race, saying he needed to focus on healing from post-traumatic stress disorder.” At the time of his abrupt withdrawal, Kander—a best-selling author and non-profit group leader—was “breaking records with his campaign’s fundraising.” But, he told The Times, “instead of celebrating that accomplishment, I found myself on the phone with the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line, tearfully conceding that, yes, I have had suicidal thoughts. And it wasn’t the first time.”
There are thousands of men and women, like Kander, who struggle every day with service related conditions that interfere with normal family life, going back to school, holding a job, and even getting a good night’s sleep many years after their participation in combat. To treat varied and complex wounds of war, they need a veterans’ health care system that is adequately funded and staffed with experienced care-givers, like the suicide prevention specialists who assisted Kander. Instead, would-be privatizers of the VHA want to contract out such services, for the benefit of politically connected private firms, like the sketchy vendor that Republican Senator Dean Heller has been trying to foist on a veterans’ hospital in Reno, Nevada. (See https://www.nevadacurrent.com/2018/10/25/guest-op-ed-hellers-penchant-for-privatizing-hurts-veterans-health-care/)
Ignored By The Officer Class
Veterans who are eligible for VHA coverage get the benefit of high quality care for wounds of war that can be mental, as well as physical, and very hard to treat. Now more than ever, they need reliable allies like the 70 House Democrats and handful of Senators who voted against the MISSION Act last May. Most of these dissenters, like Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi, and Raul Grijalva never wore a uniform nor did they ever champion the “warrior mentality” so prized by Rep. Hunter.
But they did join hands with labor and veterans’ groups to oppose privatization and criticized the billionaire Koch Brothers for pushing this agenda, despite its manifest unpopularity among poor and working class veterans who use the VHA. In contrast, their patient care needs were often neglected or ignored by the well-known former officers—McCain, Moulton, Hunter, etc.—who are among the 19 percent of all members of Congress who did serve in the military (but sometimes don’t use the VHA).
When veterans and their families go to the polls on Nov. 6, they should remember that service to our nation takes many forms. In Congress, the interests of those who enlisted or were drafted are sometimes best served by men and women with no military background.
Much needed changes in the composition of the House and Senate can create new opportunities, next year, to reverse some of the damage done to the VHA by President Trump and his bi-partisan helpers. A truly pro-veteran Congress will defend a veterans’ healthcare system that keeps health, healing, and hope in the hands of those who genuinely care about their patients, as opposed to private contractors just trying to profit from them.
(Bay area journalist Suzanne Gordon’s latest book is Wounds of War: How the VA Delivers Health, Healing, and Hope to the Nation’s Veterans (Cornell University Press). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)