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Here’s Why Veterans Groups Are Circling The Wagons Around Embattled VA Secretary Shulkin
Leading veterans service organizations met Tuesday to mount a joint response in the face of a troubling inspector general report alleging “serious derelictions” in expensing on the part of the Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and his top staff during a Europe trip last July, multiple sources told Task & Purpose.
The groups — including the largest VSOs, dubbed the “big six” — were prepared to call for the Trump administration to retain the embattled VA secretary, but have so far held off on sending a formal letter. (That same afternoon, USA Today reported that the VA’s top official “received assurances” from the White House that his position at the department is, for the time being, safe.)
Based on the recent statements from leading veterans service organizations, the mistakes detailed in the 97-page report appear to be overshadowed by concerns of a power struggle within the VA — one allegedly perpetrated by pro-privatization operatives within the department, with the goal of ousting Shulkin. And it’s that final point, that may have caused veterans groups to gather.
Put another way, the rallying cry for Shulkin amounts to: Better the VA chief we know…
A federal institution with a proposed budget of nearly $200 billion for fiscal year 2019, the Department of Veterans Affairs oversees the largest integrated health care system in the United States, and there are concerns among veterans organizations, advocates, and lawmakers, that it’s a ripe target for special interest groups seeking to turn a profit through privatizing aspects of the Veterans Health Administration — the VA’s medical arm.
In an interview with Task & Purpose, one veterans service organization official equated VA health care privatization to “robbing Peter, to pay Paul, while John bleeds out.” In this analogy, Peter’s the VA, and veterans are John.
Since Feb. 19, the largest veterans organizations, AMVETS, Vietnam Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, and Paralyzed Veterans of America, have rallied around the embattled secretary, advocating for Shulkin to remain at his post.
Though the messages vary between the VSOs individual statements, the tone is consistent, portraying a mix of disappointment over the actions detailed in the travel report, support for Shulkin’s past efforts, and concern over stories of a VA harried by inner turmoil.
The disappointment stems from the secretary and his staff’s decision-making during the 10-day Europe trip last year, which according to the Feb. 14 report, cost taxpayers $122,000; included five and-a-half days of sightseeing in Copenhagen and London; and came with allegations of wrongfully accepted gifts; and the claim that Shulkin’s now-retired chief of staff doctored an email so the secretary’s wife’s airfare could be billed to the VA. Shulkin has disputed the reports findings but agreed to repay the cost of travel and to pay back the value of a pair of improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets.
In their statements supporting the VA chief, veterans organizations cited Shulkin’s unanimous approval by the Senate — nearly a year to the day the inspector general report was released — and the VA’s efforts under Shulkin to improve the Post-9/11 GI Bill, reduce wait time for appeals, and expand mental health care for transitioning service members.
But veterans groups are worried that privatization advocates are using the IG report to get their way.
“The news media over the past week has reported on the disingenuous actions of a few political appointees in Washington who are attempting to undermine” veterans support and confidence in the VA, reads the Veterans of Foreign Wars statement. “The acts of these individuals have become a cancer inside this Administration. They sow doubt, they create turmoil, and their ideological agenda clearly puts outside interests ahead of the care and well-being of millions of wounded, ill and injured veterans.”
Veterans service organization officials who spoke with Task & Purpose, have claimed that political appointees — some of whom were previously affiliated with Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative veterans advocacy group backed by the Koch brothers — have been pushing an agenda from within the VA for greater privatization.
That’s an accusation CVA is denying.
“Frankly I think there’ve been a lot of outright lies, and misrepresentation where Concerned Veterans for America fits in, in all of this, and what our relationship was like — and what we thought it was like — with Shulkin,” Dan Caldwell, the executive director for CVA, told Task & Purpose. In a previous email to T&P;, Caldwell described that relationship as such: “...despite what some have said — CVA has always had a good working relationship with Shulkin. We wouldn’t want to push him out — he has brought us to table like no one has before. He is also for the most part aligned with us.”
Though the VA did not respond to Task & Purpose’s request for comment about Shulkin’s “work relationship” with CVA, Caldwell emailed several press releases, social media posts, and news articles citing members of CVA, usually Caldwell, praising Shulkin.
“It’s quite clear that you have people, certain veterans service organizations and others, who are quite clearly pushing the narrative that we’re involved in this,” Caldwell said, before speculating that when the VA secretary’s policy has aligned with CVAs, it’s drawn the ire of other organizations, who see those moves as too close to privatization efforts. “They basically needed somebody who’s going to be the bad guy in all this,” he added.
‘I made promises to the people that I lost’— How the Iraq war forged a Navy SEAL’s path to Harvard Medical School and NASA
Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.
However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:
You can almost smell the gunpowder in the scene captured by a Marine photographer over the weekend, showing a Marine grunt firing a shotgun during non-lethal weapons training.
A Marine grunt stationed in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina is being considered for an award after he saved the lives of three people earlier this month from a fiery car crash.
Cpl. Scott McDonell, an infantry assaultman with 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, was driving down Market Street in Wilmington in the early morning hours of Jan. 11 when he saw a car on fire after it had crashed into a tree. Inside were three victims aged 17, 20, and 20.
"It was a pretty mangled wreck," McDonell told ABC 15. "The passenger was hanging out of the window."
New Vietnam War movie 'The Last Full Measure' takes some well-deserved shots at the military’s award process
Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.
With ISIS trying to reorganize itself into an insurgency, most attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq are being carried out by Shiite militias, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.
"In the time that I have been in Iraq, we've taken a couple of casualties from ISIS fighting on the ground, but most of the attacks have come from those Shia militia groups, who are launching rockets at our bases and frankly just trying to kill someone to make a point," Grynkewich said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.