WASHINGTON, May 27 (UPI) -- Sen. Richard Burr and several veterans' groups continued swiping at each other throughout the weekend over the allegations plaguing Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The scuffle was set off when the North Carolina Republican sent an open letter to veterans, accusing many of the veterans' service organizations who testified before the VA committee earlier this month of being "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."
With the exception of the American Legion, veterans groups at the hearing told the committee they felt removing Shinseki would do little to change the problems within the culture of the VA that led to health center staff keeping secret wait lists to disguise the length of time veterans waited for care. Burr is among a group of primarily Republican lawmakers who have called for Shinseki's resignation, a position that has been rejected by President Obama, Speaker Boehner and others.
In response to Burr's letter, Veterans of Foreign Wars sent a blistering response of their own accusing Burr of being "dishonorable" and "grossly inappropriate."
"The VFW staff you chose to rebuke and whose principles you have questioned walk the walk. They've been there, done that and some of them have the scars to show for it," wrote VFW Commander-in-Chief William Thien and Adjutant General John Hamilton. "They understand first-hand the problems existing within the system because, unlike the majority of people, they've been willing to do what others won't. Senator, that is exactly why we find your personal attack so disgusting."
Still, Burr isn't backing down. He issued an additional statement Sunday holding his stance:
"The VSOs' response is a rousing defense of the status quo at VA," Burr said in a statement Sunday. "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."
Sen. Burr's open letter from Friday:
To the Nation's Veterans,
Over the course of the last few weeks, there has been a great deal of media coverage—rightly so—of the still-unfolding story coming out of the Department of Veterans Affairs regarding secret wait lists and other problems related to appointment scheduling at VA facilities. Last week, the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs heard from Secretary Shinseki, representatives of some of the Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), and others.
While a great deal of the media coverage of the hearing has focused on what Secretary Shinseki said, and didn't say, much less has been seen of the testimony of the VSOs that testified. I wanted to take a brief moment to comment on that testimony.
First and foremost, I must recognize and commend the American Legion, National Commander Dan Dellinger, and the American Legion team for taking a principled stand, before the hearing and during it, and calling for leadership change at the VA. It is clear that the Legion has been listening to its membership about the challenges they face in gaining access to care, and has reached the conclusion that "enough is enough" and the status quo is indefensible. The Legion's membership has much to be proud of with the organization they support.
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.
I fear that change within the VA will not be possible unless and until these organizations also reconsider their role as well as the nature of their relationship with VA.
United States Senator
VFW's letter in response on Saturday:
SENATOR BURR'S ALLEGATIONS ARE MEAN-SPIRITED AND PROFOUNDLY WRONG May 26, 2014
This letter is in response to the open letter you made available for distribution late Friday, May, 23, 2014. First and foremost Senator, I will afford you the same amount of respect you demonstrated for the Veterans of Foreign Wars by the monumental cheap-shot and posturing you've engaged in by enlisting in an absolutely disgusting ambush style of politics. Without the courtesy or benefit of conversation or dialogue with me or the VFW Adjutant General regarding your disagreement with VFW's recent testimony to your committee, you chose instead to take the low road and question VFW's motives and levy a pejorative personal attack on VFW staff. 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.
The VFW staff you chose to rebuke and whose principles you have questioned walk the walk. They've been there, done that and some of them have the scars to show for it. Collectively, those same staff members have among them more than 47 combat deployments. This includes deployments to Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Their awards include four Purple Hearts, sixteen Air Medals, Bronze Stars and a variety of other awards. Some rely on VA for their healthcare and residual treatment associated with their military service. They understand first-hand the problems existing within the system because, unlike the majority of people, they've been willing to do what others won't. Senator, that is exactly why we find your personal attack so disgusting. The men and women working in our DC office are dedicated professionals. Importantly, they take the work they do personally. They do it because they care. I suggest you compare the more than exorbitant amount of days off you receive, including virtually the whole month of August, two weeks around Easter/Passover, and certainly not a single five-day work week to the often time long, arduous hours they put forth every week of the year. Surely, with all the issues and the current emergent need for solutions, you must have more important things to do than to assail the character, people and motives of America's VSOs ? Let me assure you Senator, our DC staff does not operate in a vacuum, or independently from its headquarters in Kansas City. The staff operates under the direction of me and the Adjutant General. The testimony that was provided to your committee was vetted and approved by me and the Adjutant General only after careful study and consideration. We don't act in hopes of grabbing a headline or securing an interview on cable news; our only agenda in this is to ensure the veterans of our nation receive timely and adequate healthcare. If you have issues then I suggest you contact either one of us directly. The fact of the matter is this; every year the VFW, Disabled American Veterans, AMVETS and Paralyzed Veterans of America have been trying to call attention to the issue, warning Congress of the consequences, and trying to work with Congress and VA on solutions. Each year our organizations build an analysis of VA benefits and services known as the Independent Budget, and each year since 2005 the Independent Budget has warned Congress about the dangers of long wait times and care rationing due to improper resources, oversight and accountability. Last year, and again this year, then-VFW Commander-in-Chief John Hamilton and I warned you and both the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees about the dangers of long wait times. This decade of stern warnings has fallen on deaf ears. There's no doubt that the culture within VA needs to change. In a letter to the President, we made it clear that he needed to take immediate steps and ensure necessary authority to Secretary Shinseki that will guarantee the status quo of protecting enmeshed and "untouchable" bureaucrats within the VA system cannot and will not continue. We urged him to provide him authority to impose the strongest disciplinary actions, including removal and prosecution whenever and wherever necessary, on any VA employee who would abdicate their responsibilities and have a hand in the mistreatment or abandonment of those who have earned timely and adequate healthcare. Clearly, you were not listening during VFW's testimony. Nowhere did we suggest that we were interested in protecting anyone. I suggest you read the transcript. We find it especially specious that you seek to point fingers without at least an acknowledgement of some responsibility by Congress in all of this. Your assumption that we do not listen to what our members have to say is insulting. We spend most of the year traveling to and visiting VFW Posts world-wide. We have direct contact and speak at length with our members. We listen. And what you should know is this; that there is huge, and growing sentiment within most of the veteran community regarding the inaction of Congress, because they are keenly aware, (if the past is any guide), they will enact no budget, no regular appropriations bills, nor other key legislation. If we've been remiss in anything Senator, we've been remiss in being too polite with Congress. For years, the VFW has come to Congress with hat in hand and for years, we've heard the same old story. You can be assured Senator, that you've done a superb job in showing us the error in our ways. You can also be assured that in the future, we will spend a substantial percentage of our time seeking to inform our members and our constituents of the repeated failure to act by our elected officials. We will not stand by and let our members be distracted by rhetoric or finger-pointing and we certainly won't abide our veterans being used as political footballs. And you can be sure that we will let our membership know the low-regard you hold for their organization. Sincerely, William A. Thien Commander-in-Chief
John E. Hamilton Adjutant General
DAV is outraged that North Carolina's Senator Richard Burr chose the eve of Memorial Day weekend – a sacred time to remember and honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our nation — to attack the patriotism of leaders of most of the nation's leading veterans service organizations.
Last week at a hearing of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, DAV and other veteran service organizations offered comprehensive testimony on the underlying causes of the waiting list problems afflicting VA health care facilities that are currently under investigation. In addition to demanding full accountability for anyone found to have violated VA rules, regulations or laws, we provided detailed analysis and forward-looking recommendations to address the root cause of waiting lists: lack of access and capacity to treat all veterans seeking care.
Although Senator Burr attended much of that hearing, apparently all he wanted to hear were calls for the VA Secretary to resign. Senator Burr may be enamored with the idea that all of VA's problems and challenges can be overcome by replacing one Secretary, but the plain facts and simple logic indicate otherwise. If Senator Burr believes that calling for the resignation of Secretary Shinseki is the only measure of whether a leader cares about veterans, perhaps he should check with Speaker Boehner, Chairman Miller and numerous Republican Senate colleagues who have not yet done so.
Regrettably, Senator Burr shows no interest in pursuing serious policy solutions, preferring instead to launch cheap political attacks on the integrity of leaders of veterans organizations that do not agree with him, all of whom served honorably to defend this nation and then devoted all or most of their lives to serving their fellow veterans.
In spite of Senator Burr's attacks, we will continue to call for an open and comprehensive investigation in Phoenix and at any other VA facility where wrongdoings are alleged. While Senator Burr challenges our integrity, we will continue to demand full accountability for all who violated the public trust, regardless of who or where they are, including criminal prosecution if warranted. While Senator Burr ignores VA's real challenges, we will continue to call for an independent review not just of VA's wait list and scheduling problems, but the access and capacity deficits that created them.
History clearly shows that unless VA receives sufficient resources to hire enough doctors and nurses, and has enough physical space to treat veterans, waiting list problems will continue. Over the past decade, DAV – along with many of our veteran service organization partners – have pointed out that the VA has received more than $17 billion less than was needed, a figure that is primarily derived from VA's own internal analysis. Although these facts have been clear to successive Administrations and Congresses – including Senator Burr – none took the actions necessary to provide VA the resources it requires.
Rather than be distracted by Senator Burr's hollow insults, we will continue to reach out to thoughtful Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and House, as well as the President and leaders in VA, to join with us in taking an honest look at all the facts, to discuss with us all possible remedies and reforms and to work with us to implement solutions that truly honor the heroism of the men and women we remember this Memorial Day weekend.