For good reason, the hunt for the Trump administration’s Secretary of State—featuring a cast of heavy-hitting potential candidates bested, ultimately, by the unexpected choice of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson—has overshadowed several forthcoming cabinet appointments. Among these, perhaps none is more significant to Donald Trump’s campaign agenda than the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Throughout the campaign, Trump voiced loud criticisms of the Department of Veterans Affairs; this struck a definitive chord with veterans and active members who found themselves in agreement with the outspoken candidate’s assessment of the VA’s often-lethal shortcomings. He managed to capture the military vote by a 2-to-1 margin.
This past week offered yet another tragic, sobering glimpse of just how Trump’s criticisms were justified. On Tuesday, media reported that, for nearly 10 straight hours this past February, the body of an unnamed veteran lay unattended in a shower at the Bay Pines VA Health Care Center outside of St. Petersburg, FL. Despite the failure of VA employees to call dispatchers to the scene in a timely way, not a single employee involved in the miscarriage of care was fired. This is emblematic of an egregious problem of accountability within the VA system.
Unfortunately, nauseating disregard on the part of the VA is no novel phenomenon for this government-run agency. The story of the abandoned veteran comes on the heels of recent spate of resignations at a Tulsa VA facility after a veteran died with maggots in his wounds, presumably from gross negligence on behalf of the medical staff.
Under the Obama administration, the VA has boasted an incredibly disturbing track record for two reasons—first, for allowing initial grievances to occur and secondly, for allowing them to continue. In 2014, inordinate waiting times at a VA facility in Phoenix reportedly resulted in 35 possibly avoidable deaths—a horrific trend that became the subject of a far-reaching cover-up on the part of the VA. Later reports reveal that as many as 307,000 veterans may have died while awaiting the processing of their VA health care applications.
Despite the later replacement of Eric Shinseki with Bob McDonald in mid-2014, the recovery of the Department has been the subject of continued criticism. Indeed, despite 40 VA facilities having reported outrageous wait-times as part of the larger network of incompetency, only three to five senior executives associated with the scandal dating back to 2014 have been fired, while five non-senior officials have been removed. It is under this veil of mismanagement that nearly $177MM in bonuses were doled out to employees of the Department of Veteran Affairs for the 2015 fiscal year.
In countless and despicable ways, the Office of Veteran Affairs has scorned those for whom our country owes the most. Between the failed management of the Department of Veteran Affairs and McDonald’s subsequent inability to rectify the situation, a gaping hole has been forged where the government has simply missed its mark in caring for one if its most valuable and vulnerable populations—a gaping hole which would be ripe for Trump to fill. A wise and principled choice for the position of Secretary of Veteran Affairs would be a surefire and straightforward way for Trump to fulfill one of his most prominent campaign promises. During a time in which Trump has seemed to fall short of his “Drain the Swamp” chants via the hiring of several entrenched, yet qualified figured, the position of Secretary of Veteran Affairs offers Trump the opportunity to make good on a significant campaign pledge. Indeed, no group of citizens is more worthy of our attention and care than those who have sacrificed their lives for the protection and betterment of our country.
Of the three contenders currently being floated, Pete Hegseth offers the greatest promise for active and vigilant reform. Hegseth served in Iraq and Cuba as a member of the National Guard and is the president and CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, a veterans advocacy group that has worked to represent veteran interests, particularly amidst the metaphorical dumpster fire of the current administration.
Most importantly, thoughm Hegseth’s vision for the Department of Veteran Affairs is much aligned with Trump’s. This past July, Trump released a 10-point plan, outlining his reform objectives for the VA. Among the most prominent reforms was a demand for increased access to private care to avoid the wait-time travesties of the past—a reform for which Hegseth himself has personally and publicly advocated in the strongest of language. His words rang strikingly true under the monolith of atrocities rising under the VA’s watch.
Although several veteran groups have expressed outrage over privatization as a tremendous disservice to America’s veterans, the current track record of VA care under the Obama administration suggests that maintaining the current system would be the true injury. Despite criticisms, Hegeth’s vocal approach to veteran affairs continuously has brought much of the department’s mismanagement and egregious violations to the public’s attention.
Trump accomplished what other candidates in both the primaries and general could not do—he captured the attention of a group of the population which had felt all-but-abandoned by previous administrations, abandonment that has culminated into a massive, saddening, and shame-worthy health crisis. Pete Hegseth may be the Department’s best hope for impactful and aggressive reform. The current system is an embarrassment and desperately needs fixing. Regardless of his final decision, the President-Elect should honor the gravity of this choice by choosing wisely—and demonstrate to veterans that neither their hope nor their votes were in vain.