We see it so often on the nightly television news that it no longer seems like news. John McCain and Barack Obama, attacking each other on just about every issue, domestic and global.
But there is one issue that is rarely mentioned, perhaps because McCain and Obama seem to see it just about eye-to-eye. It is the unconscionable failure of our government to honor its commitments to our military veterans.
So, let’s focus on how McCain and Obama propose to help our military veterans. And we will end with a campaign challenge: For just one day, let the Republican and Democratic presidential aspirants pause in their bickering, appear together, and show America that its leaders are capable of standing together for a transcendent cause. McCain and Obama have promised separately a number of strikingly similar solutions. Both have called for a sweeping overhaul of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs benefits claims program. Both have promised increased personnel to end the unconscionable backlogs. Both vowed to end unfair claim denials.
Frankly, one of the reasons the McCain and Obama ideas struck me as very sensible is that they coincide with solutions I have proposed in my new book, "Vets Under Siege: How America Deceives and Dishonors those Who Fight Our Battles" (published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press). It is a book that tells tales that are both shameful and hopefully infuriating, about military veterans whose benefits claims were unfairly denied, or delayed for years and often decades, by a Department of Veterans Affairs that often acts as veterans’ adversaries.
Importantly, McCain and Obama have both voiced outrage at the ways veterans are mistreated. Hear the candidates in their own words.
One Candidate: "Too many of our wounded veterans come home to an administrative nightmare rather than a hero’s welcome. … We must also modernize our disability system to make sure that eligible service members receive benefits quickly, based on clear, predictable, and fair standards. … I’m not here to tell you that there is a cost that is too high to be paid in the care of our nation’s veterans. I will make sure that Congress funds the VA health care budget in a sufficient, timely, and predictable manner."
The Other Candidate: "We know that the sacred trust cannot expire when the uniform comes off. When we fail to keep faith with our veterans, the bond between our nation and our nation’s heroes becomes frayed. When a veteran is denied care, we are all dishonored. …Caring for those who serve — and for their families — is a fundamental responsibility of the commander-in-chief. It is not a separate cost. It is a cost of war."
Did you identify your favorite candidate’s impassioned words? The first was McCain (from his veterans issue paper and a speech to a veterans group). The second was Obama (from his veterans issue paper and a speech to a veterans group).
McCain proposes one solution item that Obama has not yet mentioned. (And, yes, I also recommended it in my book.) It is to provide each veteran with a "Veterans Care Access Card. It is a card that a veteran with an injury or illness incurred during military service could use to get free treatment at a local hospital if the VA hospital is too far away. Or, I would add, if another hospital has far superior facilities for a specific problem than the VA hospital has.
There is one idea I have urged that McCain nor Obama have not — yet. After having documented so many cases such as those in which VA adjudicators denied service-related benefits to a Gulf War vet despite the fact that the VA admitted his body was riddled with shrapnel — and denied PTSD benefits to a Gulf War and Iraq war vet despite the fact that two VA doctors certified he suffered from PTSD — it was clear that an unhealthy adversarial mindset has developed within much of the VA. And so I have urged one solution that can get rid of that mindset with a pen stroke. Let’s rename the VA. Call it the Department of Veterans’ Advocacy and let the new VA take the lead in providing each veteran with the benefits and care they have earned. McCain and Obama should want to make that happen.
Now comes the challenge: To truly honor our military veterans and make clear the importance of their cause, McCain and Obama need to do something that is boldly beyond politics.
Let them hold one joint appearance that is not a debate but a declaration of unity. Let them commit to forging a joint bipartisan set of solutions that will bring honorable and fairness to our military veterans.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)