Protecting the Care of Our Veterans | Commentary

Posted July 16, 2014 at 3:02pm

Over the past several months, we have heard the reports that veterans may have died waiting for care at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital.

As both the 17th Surgeon General of the United States and a disabled combat veteran myself, I was alarmed and heartbroken when I learned that these allegations were true — especially knowing that they happened right in our own backyard.

This action undermines the credibility of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and must be fixed to ensure our servicemen and servicewomen get the medical care they need and deserve.

Veterans from coast to coast already face a host of post-deployment challenges. Issues ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder, wounds of war, thoughts of suicide and interpersonal struggles haunt our heroes every day. We must acknowledge that our wounded warriors suffer from both physical and psychological wounds, due to the burden of multiple deployments during two wars over more than a decade. They sacrifice so much and often risk their lives to protect the values on which our country was built. We must also recognize that the families of our returning heroes are suffering alongside their warriors.

Failing to provide our veterans with the treatment they rightfully deserve is not only disgraceful — it’s intolerable. As citizens of a grateful nation, we must speak out and ensure that timely, respectful, and high-quality veterans’ health care is a national priority.

A solution to the immediate problem of our veterans not receiving the timely evaluation and care they need is actually close at hand. To clear the backlog, we must ensure VA facilities can be open and staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This would allow us to alleviate the backlog of services and ensure a functioning, operational system void of delays. This can be accomplished quickly and seamlessly with existing resources: We must activate U.S. Public Health Service, reservists, and National Guard service members in our health fields to provide evaluation and care at VA facilities immediately. These individuals are valuable additional resources who would be honored to help our veterans, and we should utilize them.

Finally, we must look to Congress to work in a bipartisan manner and provide the VA with the resources it needs to grant proper care to these veterans who bravely put themselves in harm’s way.

In early June, lawmakers appeared to heed this call and passed bills in the House and Senate that would ultimately prevent future service delays. Both measures are still with legislators who must now create one cumulative bill that, if passed, would go to President Barack Obama’s desk for approval.

We cannot forget that these heroes play an integral role in the success of our country. To provide them with any support that is less than extraordinary is unacceptable and goes against our core ideals.

We have the ability, we have the personnel, now we must dedicate the resources to serve our veterans. And then, we promise that we will never let this tragedy happen again.

Richard H. Carmona was the 17th U.S. surgeon general, and is now president of Canyon Ranch Institute, and distinguished professor at the University of Arizona and The Ohio State University.