BURLINGTON, Vt. — Bernie Sanders, in his first bid for Congress in 1971, ran as a member of the nonviolent, socialist Liberty Union Party. He has maintained his antiwar stance since, first as a member of the House, then the Senate.
Now, in one of the most unlikely turns in his career, Sanders is chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, casting himself as a champion of those who fought in wars he battled to prevent.
Sanders’s role comes at an important juncture for the Department of Veterans Affairs: A new generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan is straining resources, while aging Vietnam veterans seek long-delayed compensation for exposure to Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant sprayed by US forces. The combination has led to a backlog of hundreds of thousands of claims, prompting outcries from veterans groups and demands that Congress step in to fix what many say is a broken system.
As a result, the Vermont independent has spent much of his time since becoming chairman in January working to fix the problems, especially the claims backlog, which the Obama administration has pledged to overcome by 2015.
“To follow their progress we have just passed legislation that would have them make public exactly where they are in terms of their goal,” Sanders said in an interview. “What we don’t want to see is them walking in saying we had a slight problem and are not going to be there for another two years.’’
Not everyone is convinced, however, that Sanders is the best fit for his new role.
“When you see a lawmaker with no military experience and a socialist take over the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, that is cause for concern,” said Pete Hegseth of Concerned Veterans for America. “It is not about how much money we are spending but is it being spent wisely and are we achieving what we set out to achieve?”
For example, Hegseth said, Sanders should demand the resignation of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki.
“We think accountability matters,” he said.
Sanders, however, said he believes removing Shinseki would be counterproductive now that the retired four-star general has a plan to fix the claims backlog.
It has been a long road from Sanders’s days as a leading student protester at the University of Chicago to courting veterans in town hall meetings, visiting wounded troops in veterans hospitals, and advocating for them in halls of Congress. He often finds himself explaining why he can be antiwar but not anti-warrior, though to him it seems quite natural.
Sanders said that in addition to the risk of misguided militarism, another lesson of the Vietnam War he has taken to heart is the need to avoid a repeat of returning troops being deprived of desperately needed health care.
“Some may not be aware that some tens and tens of thousands of young healthy men and women have come home from those wars with traumatic brain injury and post traumatic brain disorder,’’ he said last month after visiting the site of a new veterans health clinic in Burlington and meeting with officials from the White River Junction VA Medical Center, the largest in the region. “We have a moral responsibility that all those veterans — and all veterans — get the best quality health care that we can possibly provide.”
Sanders was not directly involved in veterans policy during his eight terms in the House, from 1991 to 2007. But as Vermont’s at-large congressman, he said, he learned from constituents that many veterans were not getting adequate support. Then came what in Sanders’s view were two more ill-conceived wars.
He voted against going to war in Iraq in 2002. And although he initially supported US military intervention in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he quickly soured on the open-ended commitment of American troops there.
What drove him to his new calling, he said, was seeing firsthand the toll the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts were taking on Vermonters, which at one point had the highest number of casualties per capita.
“I went to more funerals than I ever thought that I would,” he said.
He said he decided to take on a greater role on behalf of veterans when he arrived in the Senate in 2007. “I asked [majority leader] Harry Reid to put me on the Veterans’ Committee,” Sanders recounted.
A major task now confronting the panel is how to help fix the claims backlog. As of late August, the number of benefits claims still being processed more than 125 days after being filed was close to a half-million.
That marks a 20 percent drop from four months ago but Sanders nonetheless calls it “a very, very serious, unacceptable situation.”
Much of the blame is placed on the department’s backward processing system.
“How does it happen that virtually everybody else has moved away from paper to a digital system?” Sanders asked. “Where was the VA? Clearly it should have been done during Clinton’s time, but certainly during the Bush era.”
He also said he wants to do more to compel the VA and the Department of Defense to cooperate better and make the transition from military service to veterans status smoother, including merging health records. “We have to understand that someone in the military today is going to be a veteran someday,” he said. “We have to close that gap.”
When it comes to providing medical care in hospitals and clinics, Sanders believes the VA — which, he reminds listeners with a grin, is the largest health system in the country and a model of socialized medicine — provides very good treatment.
For example, its more holistic approach combining primary care with disease prevention and mental health, he said, should be adopted by the wider health care system.
He recently introduced a bill to expand the use of alternative medicine such as acupuncture for pain management in veterans hospitals.
“I think there is a lot to be learned from the VA,” he said.
Overall, Sanders has received good marks for his efforts from members of the veterans community, some of whom, especially the more conservative ones, were initially wary.
“Vets sometimes say to him, ‘I don’t agree with you.’ But they know he understands the sacrifices they make and their families make,” said Deborah Amdur, director of the White River Junction VA Medical Center. “We’re incredibly fortunate to have the level of support we have from Senator Sanders.”
For example, he helped successfully shield the Department of Veterans Affairs from the automatic budget cuts — known as the sequester — that are hindering other government agencies. His committee also recently passed improvements to the GI Bill for veterans to get a college education.
Indeed, some say the veterans cause is proving to be tailor-made for the irascible 71-year-old liberal policy wonk best known as a forceful defender of the nation’s most disaffected.
“It seems a little odd,” Tom Tarantino, the chief policy officer at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said of Sanders’s unlikely perch. “But for those of us who have been working with the committee it seems logical. He has really dug into the issues.”
Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender