Major General William L. Nash, USA (Ret.)
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And thank you and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs for your work on behalf of the members our Armed Forces and their families. Your work is crucial and I believe this hearing is most important. I would also like to thank Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric K. Shinseki for his wisdom, initiative and hard work on behalf of veterans and their families. General Shinseki is an old friend, and I could not be happier for the Nation in having him lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.
When I was a fairly young commander in Germany in the early 80’s, I worked for a commanding general who drew a clear distinction between “love of soldiers” and “care for soldiers.” He used to say that everyone “loved” soldiers, but fewer knew how to take care of them. By that he meant, that not every commander had the necessary understanding of how the various Army systems worked in order to ensure that soldiers were equipped, trained, fed, compensated, and housed. Those efforts required expertise and resources and great energy to accomplish successfully. It was a lesson all commanders need to learn early in their careers.
The same is true at the national level when talking about veterans. Yellow ribbons and bumper stickers are nice; so are standing ovations at ball games and 4th of July speeches. But they don’t do the job of taking care of veterans and their families. For that you need expertise and resources and great energy.
One important aspect of this endeavor is the need to anticipate requirements. As we have seen for many years and again this morning, the preparation for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were inadequate. Basically, we as a Nation failed to understand the consequences of our actions abroad or at home. Hence, we failed to prudently prepare for those consequences.
Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines sign an unlimited liability contract when they join the armed forces. The co-signers are their families. And we as a Nation, having chosen to have an all-volunteer force, must underwrite these contracts to full value.
Thus I am troubled as to the current state of preparedness to care for our veterans and their families. While significant progress has been made in many areas, there is much more to be done by both the executive and legislative branches of our government. We know that more than 450,000 veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq have submitted disability claims. More are coming; many more are to be expected. This is a long term, life-time challenge.
Mr. Chairman, you have recognized that there are “more than one million claims and appeals jammed in a fatally-flawed system.” As you have stated, the benefits claims processing system must be reformed. We must increase our capacity to handle the volume of applications as well improve the accuracy of initial claims decision. Drastic improvements are needed in the current appellate process. We must recognize and do something about the direct relationship between the shortages of behavioral health specialists and substance abuse counselors and the high suicide rates of veterans as well as the other ramifications of the dramatic numbers of post traumatic stress experienced by personnel returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
In other words, Mr. Chairman we need more expertise, more resources and even more energy. As to resources, I would add that a forced savings program—a Veterans’ Trust Fund—seems to me to be a sound and prudent initiative to help meet long term needs.
It is the long-term that requires our attention. Care for our veterans and their families requires a broad perspective that goes well beyond the responsibilities of the Department of Veteran Affairs. Our citizens have determined that the Nation will be defended by volunteers, active and reserve, who serve because they have chosen to serve. And as I said before, that commitment is unlimited in scope. So as we look at veteran issues, we must examine the entire package of pay and benefits that we citizens are willing to spend in order to recruit, retain and reward the small group of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that go in harms’ way to defend our Nation. We have not done enough.
I was privileged to serve for over thirty years with those dedicated public servants. I was also responsible at times to give the direct order to face battle and its horrible consequences. I never hesitated to look them in the eye as I gave those orders because I knew we were individually and collectively capable and dedicated. But I also knew that we were committed to caring for our dead and wounded – no soldier left behind. So must our Nation – we care for those who serve—now and forever. Thus, Mr. Chairman, I look you in the eye and ask you and the Committee and the Congress to give to our veterans the very best expertise, resources and energy possible.