It’s not uncommon for Presidents to embellish their accomplishments upon leaving office, but George W. Bush, who will exit the White House leaving the country in the worst shape since Herbert Hoover, has gone a step further, moving past exaggeration into outright lying.
Last month, trying to change the emerging historical consensus about a failed presidency, the White House published two lengthy reports, “Highlights of Accomplishments and Results of the Administration of George W. Bush,” and “100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration Record.”
One of the surprising claims that stood out among the combined 90 pages of so-called accomplishments was the White House’s glowing assessment of Bush’s record on veterans’ issues. Bush claims he “provided unprecedented resources for veterans” over the past eight years and provided “the highest level of support for veterans in American history.”
“The President also increased the benefits available to those who have served our Nation and transformed the veterans health care system to better serve those who have sacrificed for our freedom,” both reports claim, adding that he “instituted reforms for the care of wounded warriors . . . and dramatically expanded resources for mental health services.”
The White House made these claims in the face of what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might have called a “known known” — that the treatment of veterans returning from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a national disgrace, highlighted most dramatically by the neglect and substandard care given wounded troops at Walter Reed and other military hospitals.
The budget increases that have occurred mostly were enacted over Bush’s opposition or related to the fact that injuries from the Iraq War far exceeded the administration’s rosy projections in early 2003. The Bush team especially underestimated how many cases of post-traumatic stress disorder to anticipate as well as the number of brain injuries, which have been endemic to the Iraq War where insurgents made effective use of “improvised explosive devices,” or IEDs.
Before Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, documents released by the Department of Veterans Affairs said it expected a maximum of 8,000 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, according to a study released last year by the RAND Institute, there are more than 320,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars suffering from major depression, PTSD and/or traumatic brain injury. The report found that the VA has been and continues to be ill equipped to deal with these cases when soldiers return from combat, especially after multiple tours.
An Army task force last year also found major flaws in the way the VA treated and cared for veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries.
Bush’s Record on VA Funding
For his part, Bush stacked the VA with political cronies, such as former Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson, who as VA Secretary defended a budget measure that sought major cuts in staffing for health care and at the Board of Veterans Appeals; slashed funding for nursing home care; and blocked four legislative measures aimed at streamlining the backlog of veterans benefits claims.
Of the 84,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by VA, only half, about 42,000, had their disability claim approved by VA. Instead of expediting PTSD claims, Bush’s political appointees at VA actively fought against mental health claims.
Bush’s appointees also obstructed scientific research into the causes of Gulf War illnesses dating back 18 years to Operation Desert Storm and opposed medical research on treatment for 210,000 of those veterans.
As for funding, Bush proposed a 0.5 percent budget increase for the VA for fiscal year 2006, which amounted to a “cruel mockery” of Bush’s promises to do everything to support veterans and soldiers, Rep. Lane Evans, D-Illinois, said at the time.
Evans called Bush’s proposed budget increase for the VA “grossly inadequate,” saying it would force the VA to “ration” health care to veterans.
VA officials had testified in 2005 that the agency needed at least a 13 percent increase to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of war veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and others who needed long-term mental health care.
In early 2007, the Washington Post put a spotlight on the human consequences resulting from the combination of Bush’s wars and the budget squeeze
The Post published a series of articles documenting the substandard conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which is located only 4.7 miles from the White House. Wounded vets were housed in rooms with moldy walls, leaky plumage and an infestation of vermin, underscoring how out of touch Bush had become regarding the nation’s veterans.
In response to complaints that some veterans under VA care were being neglected, Nicholson said in March 2007 that such cases were “anecdotal exceptions.”
“When you are treating so many people there is always going to be a linen towel left somewhere,” he said.
In May 2007, the AP revealed that while Nicholson was pinching pennies on treatment costs and coping with a $1.3 billion budget shortfall, he awarded “$3.8 million in bonuses to top executives in fiscal 2006″ — many as much as $33,000.
Simultaneously, Bush was resisting congressional efforts to beef up the VA’s budget. In May 2007, Bush threatened to veto legislation that sought a 10 percent — $3.2 billion — increase, calling it too expensive. Bush proposed a 2 percent increase, far below what lawmakers and VA officials said was needed to treat a dramatic increase in traumatic brain injury and PTSD cases.
After Congress passed the legislation with the higher VA spending, Bush backed down on his veto threat but that was largely due to the fact that every Republican in the Senate with the exception of Jim DeMint of South Carolina, supported the measure.
Amid the growing scandals about substandard VA treatment and inept management, Nicholson resigned in July 2007.
Even after Nicholson’s resignation, the Department of Veterans Affairs continued to be buffeted by scandals, including a cover-up in an epidemic of veterans’ suicides and attempted suicides.
Last year, internal VA e-mails surfaced that showed how top agency officials tried to conceal the information from the public about the sudden increase in suicides and attempted suicides among veterans that were treated or sought help at VA hospitals around the country.
And last November, internal watchdogs discovered 500 benefits claims in shredding bins at the 41 of the 57 regional VA offices around the country.
Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, a veterans’ advocacy group that sued the VA in federal court, said attempts by the White House to portray Bush as an advocate for veterans is beyond shameful.
“Bush is the worst failure for our veterans since Hoover,” Sullivan said, expressing shock that the President “would shamefully continue his legacy of lies to the American people as he and his political cronies are forced to leave office on Jan. 20.”
Sullivan disputed some of Bush’s claims as misleading, such as the assertion that he doubled funding for the VA. “However, President Bush failed to disclose that the number of veterans seeking VA health care doubled, from 2.7 million to 5.5 million, and that rising health care inflation actually resulted in a net decrease in spending per veteran by VA during the past eight years,” he said.
“If not for the intervention of Congress to substantially increase VA funding beyond Bush’s inadequate budget requests, especially in the past two years, the situation would have deteriorated from a serious crisis to a catastrophe at VA.”
Sullivan, who worked at the VA for five years as a project manager, said Bush failed to the implement the VA’s proposed Mental Health Strategic Plan, a program aimed at identifying and quickly treating veterans suffering from major depression and were on the verge of suicide.
“Without implementation, funding, and oversight of the plan, several suicidal Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans were illegally refused emergency medical care by VA,” Sullivan said. “Veterans for Common Sense brought this issue to the attention of VA, and VA refused to act.
“Therefore, VCS sued VA for turning away suicidal veterans. After we filed our lawsuit, and only after we filed our lawsuit, the VA began a suicide prevention hotline. In the first 15 months of operation, the hotline received 85,000 calls and rescued more than 2,100 suicidal veterans.”
As of September 2008, 330,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have filed disability claims to the VA, according to the agency. Yet, 54,000 are still waiting for the VA to confirm their claims were received. The average wait for a disability claim is more than six months.
Additionally, according to VA’s Inspector General, 25 percent of the VA’s 55 million patients have to wait more than 30 days for a doctor’s appointment.
As costly as the treatment of Iraq and Afghan war veterans already has become, Bush is leaving an even greater budget hole for his successors.
In the book, The Three Trillion Dollar War, authors Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes wrote that future treatment of veterans would continue adding to the total cost of Bush’s conflicts and would put extraordinary stresses on the VA.
“Even in 2000, before the war,” they wrote, the VA was the subject of numerous Government Accountability Office studies that “identified long-standing problems, including large backlogs of pending claims, lengthy processing time for initial claims, high rates of error in processing claims, and inconsistency across regional offices.”
But the problems only have grown worse. “In a 2005 study,” Stiglitz and Blimes wrote, “the GAO found that the time to complete a veteran’s claim varied from 99 days at the Salt Lake City Office to 237 days in Honolulu. In a 2006 study, GAO found that 12 percent of claims were inaccurate.”
The White House reports on Bush’s so-called accomplishments also claimed that Bush “reduced the number of homeless veterans by nearly 40 percent from 2001 to 2007. Established VA homeless-specific programs, which constitute one of the largest integrated networks of homeless treatment and assistance services in the country.”
That statement rankled Aaron Glantz, a journalist, author and the Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism at the Carter Center.
“What kind of President pats himself on the back with 200,000 veterans sleeping homeless on the street every night?” Glantz said in an interview. “What kind of administration puts out self-congratulatory press releases while over 6,000 veterans commit suicide every year?
“We can only hope that President elect Barack Obama takes a very different course once he’s in office. Otherwise, our government will repeat the shameful disgrace that was its treatment of wounded veterans returning home from Vietnam.”
Glantz spent three years in Iraq reporting on the war and recently published The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle against America’s Veterans, which documents the heart-wrenching stories of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and the plight of other veterans who, upon returning home, have been neglected by the country they served.
Last week, Glantz published a report, “Did You Know 200,000 Vets Are Sleeping on the Streets?,” that contradicts the Bush self-congratulations about veterans’ homelessness.
On his transition Web site, change.gov, Obama said he intends to “Fix the Benefits Bureaucracy: Hire additional claims workers, and improve training and accountability so that VA benefit decisions are rated fairly and consistently. Transform the paper benefit claims process to an electronic one to reduce errors and improve timeliness.”
To meet that challenge, Obama tapped retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, a Vietnam War veteran who sustained combat-related injuries, to lead the VA. Shinseki made headlines back in February 2003 when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and predicted that several hundred thousand soldiers would likely be needed to maintain order in post-invasion Iraq.
After facing public criticism from Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, Shinseki was forced into early retirement. His judgment has since been vindicated, both in regard to likely ethnic strife in Iraq and on the costliness of the war.
Yet, Bush’s White House is now hoping that its last-minute propaganda barrage will, if nothing else, cloud some of the memories about its failures and misjudgments. Bush’s critics, however, are not willing to so easily forget.
“Contrary to his Administration’s latest spin, George W. Bush’s legacy on veterans is one of shameful neglect,” author Glantz said. “Rather than care for the tens of thousands of American service members wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush Administration has thrown up a series of barriers to prevent veterans from getting the care they need.”
Simply put — White House propaganda aside — veterans’ health care has become worse, not better, under Bush’s leadership.