Caring for Veterans

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has been widely — and justly — praised for his role in forging legislation aimed at addressing critical shortcomings in the Department of Veterans Affairs. Once upon a time, it would have been regarded as a no-brainer for Congress to swiftly respond to disclosures that some veterans had been forced to wait months for appointments and that some VA officials had covered up the long waiting times. But these days, it is genuine news when substantive bills of any sort win large bipartisan majorities, as this one did — passing 91-3 in the Senate and 420-5 in the House.

The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, signed into law by President Obama earlier this month, provides $16.5 billion to hire doctors, build clinics and pay for veterans to receive care outside the system if they face undue delays or long drives. Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, told reporters that the compromise he reached with Republicans was not the bill he would have liked to write, but was a step in the right direction.

Veterans groups agreed, but cautioned that the measure was a Band-Aid and not a cure. Indeed the ongoing challenges to the VA system should not be underestimated. Veterans are flooding into the system — 6.5 million a year seeking care currently, compared with 5 million a year four years ago — and the problems they face are increasingly complex, from post-traumatic stress disorder to traumatic brain injury.

Moreover, the costs of caring for veterans have historically peaked decades after wars have ended. So presumably those who have returned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will place an increasing burden on an already stressed Veterans Affairs system as the years go by.

It is interesting in this context to evaluate the harsh criticism that has been directed this summer at President Obama’s foreign policy. In particular, the critics have assailed the president for perceived failures in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq. In this version, the president’s passivity has encouraged Vladimir Putin’s adventurism, while his failure to arm moderate rebels in Syria and leave behind an adequate residual force of U.S. troops in Iraq permitted the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In fact, 58 percent of Americans in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll disapproved of the president’s handling of foreign policy. On the other hand, the public seems to have little appetite for direct U.S. intervention in any of these trouble spots, although that mood is not matched by the chorus thundering on the right.

The fact is that presidents often have limited power to influence events in distant places — unless a military intervention is contemplated. We think Obama’s restraint is well founded in this regard. The grievous costs, both human and financial, of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are only now coming home in full force to America. Unless the nation’s vital interests are at stake, let’s be very careful not to create yet another generation of maimed veterans who will need medical and psychological care many years out into the future. Too many are suffering now from America’s most recent exercise in quixotic wishful thinking abroad.

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