North Carolina Senator Richard Burr has set off a minor firestorm by chastising the professional staff of several major Veterans Service Organizations over their lack of outrage about Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki's grotesque mismanagement of that organization.
Regrettably, the Legion was alone among the VSOs that testified in taking such a stand. It became clear at the hearing that most of the other VSOs attending appear to be more interested in defending the status quo within VA, protecting their relationships within the agency, and securing their access to the Secretary and his inner circle. But to what end? What use is their access to senior VA staff, up to and including the Secretary, if they do not use their unprecedented access to a Cabinet Secretary to secure timely access to care for their membership? What hope is there for change within the VA if those closest to the agency don't use that proximity for the good of veterans across our country?
I believe the national and local commanders of every VSO have the interests of their members at heart, and take seriously their commitment to their members and their organization. Unfortunately, I no longer believe that to be the case within the Washington executive staff of the VSOs that testified. Last week’s hearing made it clear to me that the staff has ignored the constant VA problems expressed by their members and is more interested in their own livelihoods and Washington connections than they are to the needs of their own members.
Predictably, the organizations he has called out went bonkers. Via Politico:
Calling Burr’s letter a “monumental cheap shot” and a “disgusting ambush style of politics,” Veterans of Foreign Wars’ commander in chief William A. Thien and John E. Hamilton, the adjutant general, said on Monday that Burr should be ashamed of his conduct.
“Senator, this is clearly one of the most dishonorable and grossly inappropriate acts that we’ve witnessed in more than forty years of involvement with the veteran community and breaches the standards of the United States Senate. Your allegations are ugly and mean-spirited in every sense of the words and are profoundly wrong, both logically and morally. Quite frankly Senator, you should be ashamed,” Thien and Hamilton wrote.
The other chartered VSOs chimed in along the same lines.
Unfortunately, Senator Burr is absolutely right. While the VSOs do great work at the post level, the profession veterans that staff the Washington, DC offices of the Congressionally chartered VSOs are, for all intents an purposes, extensions of the federal government in general and the VA in particular. There is a revolving door between VSO staff and Congressional committees and the VA and the veterans employment agency of the Department of Labor. Their interest is in not rocking the boat, moving ahead in their career, and getting invited to the right meetings. You do that by going along to get along. The current situation in the VA could never have happened in the VSOs were not complicit in their silence. Perhaps it was deference to Eric Shinseki, himself a disabled veteran. Perhaps is is because the national offices of the VSOs are reflexively Democrats who, in my view, cheapen the profession of arms by pushing veterans as yet another whiny, self-interested special interest group.
Burr is not going away, he fired back:
“The VSOs’ response is a rousing defense of the status quo at VA,” Burr said in a statement provided to CQ Roll Call. “It’s clear that my open letter to America’s veterans has outraged some VSOs more than the scandals at VA — I believe their testimony stands on its own.”
Bingo. The fact that all the groups save the American Legion have been silent on the VA scandal and direct much more invective at Senator Burr than the agency involved in killing hundreds, if not thousands, of veterans through neglect, mismanagement, and malfeasance indicates he has hit a nerve.