Folks looking for military, foreign policy, and Veteran news, often turn to TIME’s Battleland, a blog with an impressive cast of talented writers, many of them with military experience. They were even so kind as to publish something I wrote for Veterans Day last year. Usually the writing at Battleland is crisp and the facts are right on target.
So I found it puzzling to read Nate Rawlings’ piece on Wednesday that puts forth the idea that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki isn’t a visible advocate for Veterans. It’s especially confounding since the Secretary raced from the VFW National Convention on Tuesday to be in Washington, DC to answer questions on VA’s progress and responsibilities for nearly three hours before Wednesday’s joint VA/ Department of Defense hearing, which was promoted through VA’s Twitter feed for Veterans to follow. And that’s just this week.
So let’s unpack Mr. Rawling’s criticism. I take issue with the idea from several viewpoints: As a VA employee who has seen him in direct, personal discussions with Veterans, as a public Veteran advocate who also acts as an internal and external critic of VA when necessary, and as a student of journalism, where I have grown to understand—and look for—a few crucial conventions of the trade that Mr. Rawlings failed to utilized in his critique.
First, let’s examine the foundation of his argument:
But since taking over the VA, Shinseki has been “AWOL” as a veterans group leader told Joe Klein back in June. “He’s been a quiet disaster at the VA…and I mean quiet,” the man told Joe.
I don’t really have to debunk this from a VA standpoint. The New York Times addressed and debunked similar criticism earlier this month. Most folks in the Veterans space know the Secretary has a monthly breakfast with Veteran group leaders where they discuss the pressing issues their members face, and as the Times notes, “Mr. Shinseki has delivered more than 250 speeches since taking office in 2009, testified before Congress 21 times and conducted nearly 60 news conferences in the past 18 months.” And later this month, he will have completed his goal to visit 50 states in over 140 trips, engaging directly with Veterans on each one.
That level of access was highlighted by two Vets group leaders:
“Overall, he’s been a very accessible secretary,” said Peter Gaytan, executive director of American Legion, noting that Mr. Shinseki had been interviewed at least twice for the Legion’s magazine and had appeared at its national convention every year since taking office.
Similarly, Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America, said Mr. Shinseki had visited many of the group’s chapters at universities around the country, meeting scores of student veterans, most in their 20s.
“I can tell you that I’ve seen this man make the rounds,” Mr. Dakduk said.
Of course, some folks will disagree. So back to Rawlings’ piece. We’re told that the Secretary is “AWOL.” But who thinks that? Is it a consensus or a lone dissenting opinion? How many Veterans groups—or the Veterans they represent—agree the Secretary isn’t visible enough?
Surely Rawlings, a fellow Iraq War Veteran, knows more than a few Veterans to quote. He could also use his credibility as a TIME journalist to gain access to Veteran organization leaders and ask himself. But he didn’t do that. Instead, he cited a coworker, Joe Klein, and his bizarre quote from an anonymous “leader of a veterans group,” with no indication of who it is, why they’re speaking anonymously, or how widespread that opinion is.
For leaders who want to transform VA for the better, an anonymous tipster leaving quotes behind an “off-the-record” shield, isn’t the best way to advocate. It’s telling that Mr. Klein (or Rawlings) could not (or would not) find a single Veterans group leader with enough conviction to put a name to a quote like that.
Doubling down on anonymous, axe-grinding sources and failing to solicit more than one viewpoint would make any intro to journalism professor cringe, but it goes beyond that. Rawlings moves on to the continuing issue with VA’s claims backlog (which, we are the first to admit, has grown too large and Veterans wait far too long). What’s missing here is context—a lot of it.
It’s intellectually (and journalistically) lazy to declare, “The VA is an antiquated bureaucracy in desperate need of an overhaul” as a catchall reason for the existence of the claims backlog without giving the context of many reasons the backlog has grown, some of which are in VA’s control—and some of which are not.
The Associated Press gave a straightforward rundown of the circumstances, none of which are as simple as slow-moving bureaucrats. One pretty complex reason is that Secretary Shinseki declared a series of illnesses presumptively connected to Agent Orange, in a long overdue move, that put nearly a quarter of a million claims into the system and took 37 percent of the raters off their normal duties to complete.
Not to mention that claims soar under economic uncertainty, or that Veterans of modern wars (like Rawlings and myself) are filing claims at twice the rate of Veterans from other eras, and for up to seven times as many conditions—including connected injuries like traumatic brain injury and amputations that are unfortunate consequences of modern warfare. That kind of complexity demands greater attention, which unfortunately means longer wait times. And that’s why we have a plan to automate the system so those wait times are a thing of the past.
This could’ve been explained to Rawlings by any number folks at VA who work on this issue. We have over a dozen friends in common on Twitter, so it’s easy to say we swim in the same pond of Veterans and advocates, which should make him comfortable enough to reach out. I regularly help connect reporters with VA experts, and would’ve been happy to do so for someone who chewed the same terrain in Iraq.
Now, I’m not certain Rawlings reached out to anyone at VA, or if he felt he knew enough information to forgo historical facts and projections for the piece, but it appears diligence was left at the door.
This is where context becomes pretty crucial. No one will deny that Veterans wait too long to receive a decision on their disability claims. That’s understood. But Rawlings goes as far to suggest that VA’s goal—a decision made by 125 days—is somehow not good enough:
Yes, 125 days. That’s over 4 months. That means that three years from now, a veteran filing a claim might still have to wait more than a third of a year. This is an absurd vision.
We already know the national average of 241 days is far too long, but is half that number still too long? What would an acceptable number be? Is there an amount of time that allows for evidence to build, appointments and evaluations made, and decisions sent that strikes a balance between due diligence, legality, and speed? Is 125 days that number, or can we do better? Again, this would be a good time for Rawlings to ask someone.
The process is still governed by laws established by Congress, and they must gather enough evidence to make a fair assessment. It’s an assessment that will potentially pay Veterans every month and affect the health care they receive for the rest of their lives.
So, what kind of timeframe should we set for that? Disability compensation isn’t Amazon, or Zappos, or on-demand cable. There’s a reason filing a claim isn’t like ordering fast food. It’s serious business that we have to get faster and better at, but that we absolutely must get right. But with a lack of situational awareness from folks like Mr. Rawlings, it’s difficult for Veterans to judge whether our goal is the best possible, good enough, or unacceptable.
Criticism is my thing. I got my job here by being vocal about VA’s shortcomings when it came to education benefits. And since starting at VA, I’ve been an internal critic with an external microphone, looking to start a conversation about the things we need to improve. So it’s not about sensitivity to criticism, but rather the pursuit of honest and informed dialogue.
With Secretary Shinseki’s leadership, we’ve had the ability to push the envelope with citizen engagement arguably more than any other government agency. It wasn’t possible before his tenure, and he has helped build a philosophy that has led to a very public discussion on the issues Veterans face.
And there’s no hiding from that.