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KEVIN CULLEN

VA issues a symptom of demilitarized political system

Eric Shinseki is gone, and the vast majority of Americans couldn’t care less, just as they don’t care, really care, about their fellow citizens who just spent the last decade in combat.

Shinseki, the soldier, gave a good chunk of his foot to his country when he stepped on a land mine in Vietnam.

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Shinseki, the Cabinet secretary, inherited an absolute mess in the Department of Veterans Affairs and wasn’t able to change it. When it came out that the VA in Phoenix, and who knows how many other places, was cooking the waiting lists, someone had to take it in the neck ,and it turned out to be Ric Shinseki.

The funny thing — not funny ha ha, but funny sad — is that there are many people in the VA who should have been fired for the scandal of so many vets being turned away or made to linger ridiculous amounts of times on waiting lists that never move. Except, they’re protected.

Ric Shinseki was not, and so he had to go. Being a soldier, he probably gets this better than anyone.

But the suggestion that Shinseki, a decorated combat veteran, was somehow cold and callous when it comes to taking care of the very people who he once was is ridiculous.

Just as ridiculous as the suggestion that this is a manifestation of Barack Obama not caring about veterans. Obama’s people have been no better and no worse than previous administrations, going all the way back to the Vietnam War, when it comes to taking care of veterans.

The apathetic attitude toward vets today on both sides of the aisle in Washington reflects a wider societal indifference that has been there for decades. When Republicans insist they are better than Democrats at taking care of vets, they must be forgetting that all those Senate Republicans who were calling for Shinseki’s head voted against an appropriation in February that would have given the VA much-needed resources. They must be forgetting the appalling conditions some soldiers endured in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center under the Bush administration.

Look, we have just endured a decade of war — wars, actually, because Iraq and Afghanistan were two very different places and two very different wars. We have asked more of our armed forces, over a longer period of time, than any previous generation. Never before has such a high percentage of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines chosen or been compelled to serve so many multiple combat deployments.

And, yet, look what they’ve come home to. A general populace that has paid more attention to “American Idol’’ than men and women who are the American ideal, those who put themselves in harm’s way for their fellow citizens.

We elect politicians who decide whether to send our armed forces into harm’s way, and the entire political establishment, with few exceptions, chose to launch two wars without taking nearly enough steps to prepare for the collateral damage that was going to come home from those wars.

The Department of Veterans Affairs was an underfunded, unwieldy, unfocused bureaucracy long before Afghanistan and Iraq. The suggestion that this is solely the fault of the incumbent administration is partisan nonsense.

The sad state of the VA is instead a symptom of a political system that has been demilitarized, in the sense that too few of our politicians, especially in Washington, are veterans. The vast majority of politicians who committed the nation to war had no skin in the game. It wasn’t their sons or daughters who were driving into IEDs or the crosshairs of the enemy. It was somebody else’s kid.

Now all those kids are coming home, many with wounds of war, seen and unseen, that are desperately undertreated. Just as the hawks in Washington started wars without having enough Humvees armored up, the VA is not armored up for what has come home.

According to the Congressional Research Service, only 20 percent of the elected members of the House of Representatives and US Senate are veterans. In 1981, it was 64 percent, and in 1971 it was 73 percent. While the percentage of veterans among the general population has dropped over the last 40 years, the decline of veterans in Congress has been more precipitous.

In the 1970s, when vets accounted for three of every four elected members of Congress, about 14 percent of the overall population in the United States were veterans. While the percentage of the overall population who are vets has been halved, the percentage of congressional veterans has dropped 75 percent.

When it comes to members of Congress whose own skin is in the game, it’s just nine members in the military reserves. There are six members of the National Guard in Congress, or one more than the number of talk radio hosts and ordained ministers (five each).

It is therefore much welcome news that former Virginia senator Jim Webb is considering a run for president. Webb was in town last week, promoting his latest book, a memoir, “I Heard My Country Calling.” Besides being an accomplished writer, Webb was a combat-decorated Marine in Vietnam, served as Navy secretary under President Reagan, and was one of the few politicians in Washington whose own flesh and blood saw combat in the last decade of war.

When President Bush famously asked Webb how his son and namesake, a Marine serving in Iraq, was doing, Jim Webb told the president he wanted to bring his son and all of our military people home. That was the right answer.

When I asked Jim Webb what he thought about the dearth of veterans in Congress, he said it’s a reflection of a society that has grown apart from its military. That said, he says it’s more important to get good leaders in Washington, whether they’re veterans or not.

At this point, I’m not exactly sure what kind of president Jim Webb would be in all areas of policy. But I do know that he walks through Arlington National Cemetery almost every day, and I know he would never let our veterans be treated the way they are right now.

Let’s be blunt here. Veterans who put their lives on the line, for all of us, are now dying in our streets, killing themselves in record numbers, because the same politicians who sent them to war have not provided the resources to take care of them coming back from war.

I can’t think of a bigger scandal. It is beyond scandalous that politicians who hold the power to fix this spend so much time pointing fingers instead of looking in the mirror.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.
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