When President Obama addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) national convention in Nevada in July 2012, he offered a proud accounting of the things his administration had accomplished at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
And what a list it was.
Expanded access. Harnessing technology for improved care. And, of course, more funding. (...always more funding). It's a wonder he didn't dislocate his shoulder patting himself on the back.
"These are the promises that I made," the president concluded. "These are the promises that I've kept. Where we still have more to do, we will not rest. That's my vow to you. I've got your back. I've got your six."
If the president were to read that speech today, two years later, one hopes he would be embarrassed by its tone of boastful self-congratulation—particularly now that so many of his administration's self-styled "achievements" at VA have been shown to be illusions.
That speech should be required reading for those who are focused on VA reform today, because it serves as a reminder as to why President Obama has squandered his credibility on questions related to veterans' concerns.
Where did the president go wrong? I, for one, don't doubt the sincerity of his original intentions. But the unfortunate reality with this president is that "intentions" are too often valued over "results." The VA patient care scandal that erupted this spring out of Phoenix, Arizona, and which continues to reverberate today, has laid waste to President Obama's fine words and lofty promises.
Over the last several months, a succession of media reports and horrifying whistleblower accounts have shocked the nation's conscience. And rightly so. The breadth and depth of the VA's corruption has shocked even the agency's harshest critics (myself included).
But while these revelations are shocking, they are not news. Anyone who claims they are, hasn't been paying attention—or is simply lying. At many levels, and in countless forums—including every single House and Senate office—there are ample numbers of veterans and family members testifying to the VA's pattern of dysfunction, neglect and betrayal. Like other veterans advocates, I hear those stories nearly every day.
For months and years, there were truckloads of reports of long wait times for health care, massive backlogs for disability benefits, unsanitary conditions at VA facilities, wasteful spending on conferences and bonuses, veterans dying from overprescribed painkillers...the list of scandals goes on and on.
There were reams of reports from government watchdog agencies, like the Government Accountability Office and the VA Inspector General, who published searing indictments of VA failures and dysfunction.
Congress is not blameless either. Every "shocked" Member of Congress has a veterans' case worker on staff whose job it is to work constituent access issues. If they didn't know, they certainly should have.
To that point, a scathing June report from the office of Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, detailing bureaucratic incompetence, budgetary shenanigans, medical malpractice, sexual abuse and even criminal activity, was only the latest entry in this catalog of shame. Coburn offers a plausible estimate that as many as 1,000 veterans may have died over the last decade from delayed or shoddy VA care.
The conclusion is impossible to avoid: the VA culture of corruption is pervasive. The only way to change it is to impose real, root-to-branch reform. Recent proposals from Congress—demanding greater accountability from VA executives, requiring more transparency to improve oversight and expanding patient choice to improve care—are a solid start. But they are only that.
Having served on the Veterans Affairs Committee while in the Senate and painted himself time and again as a champion of veterans, you'd think the president would be demanding these reforms from Congress. The shocking truth is that VA reform legislation seems to be moving in spite of his efforts rather than because of them.
Case in point: just last week, the president came to my home state of Minnesota for another "pivot-to-the-economy" speech, and while addressing the VA scandal, came to the defense of the VA bureaucracy to protect them from "being painted with a broad brush." Straying from his careful script, President Obama actually attributed the VA's wait list scandal to the fact that federal workers sometimes "do bone-headed things."
Could he possibly be more tone deaf? VA employees aren't the victims here. Our underserved veterans are. They are the ones who deserve a full-throated defense by—and apology from—their Commander in Chief. Not the other way around.
There's a lesson here for serious VA reformers in Congress and beyond: As the pressure to repair the broken VA builds steam, recognize that the president's heart does not appear to be in line with your efforts. If anything, once the conference committee doors are closed, he and his allies in Harry Reid's Senate are more likely to dilute or even sabotage any real legislative mandates; they will be obstacles to reform, rather than champions of it.
So the next time the president offers another stirring speech about his commitment to veterans issues, look beyond the lofty rhetoric and focus on the results that his administration has actually achieved. Smoothly delivered speeches and good intentions are nice, but his record is far from reassuring. It's appalling.
In 2007, then-candidate Obama said that, "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. It's not enough to lay a wreath on Memorial Day, or to pay tribute to our veterans in speeches. A proud and grateful nation owes more than ceremonial gestures and kind words."
Truer words have never been uttered—at least by this president. It's a shame he didn't heed them.
The term having one's 'six' is a military term for covering their back. It is a sacred trust shared with those you count on at the most critical moments. At one time, we veterans could take President Obama at his word when he spoke of honoring that trust. Today, it is painfully clear that he has betrayed that trust and left our blind sides exposed. Thanks Mr. President, but from now on, we'll cover our own 'six.'
Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and a Fox News contributor. Pete is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard, and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.