By Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.
The current controversy surrounding the plight of veterans in the United States is an important issue for all families in America who have benefited from the service of millions of men and women who have served in the military. Every Memorial Day, the nation pauses to remember and honor all of those who have served the nation and who today continue to serve in the armed services. But the growing contradictions surrounding the U.S. Veterans Administration (VA) about systematic failures to provide timely and adequate health care for veterans is alarming.
Too often, however, the status and interests of Black American veterans get loss in the national public debate when issues of the VA are raised. Since the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, the percentage of Black Americans serving in the U.S. armed services peaked at 30 percent. Today, the percentage is at approximately 20 percent. Now that so many Black American veterans and other veterans are now returning home from the long and awful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA is now overwhelmed with the increased demands for health care and war-related disabilities.
The Department of Veterans Affairs health care group is the largest health care provider in the U.S., overseeing 1,700 hospitals, nursing homes, multipurpose health clinics, and other medical facilities. The VA is a massive bureaucracy that has had major dysfunctional problems for decades. Accordingly, the crisis at the VA is not a new one. Yet, with a Black American president of United States, old problems are viewed with a different level of urgency and priority. The truth is that past U.S. presidents were aware of the VA’s long term systemic dysfunctions, but they did not correct or remedy the VA’s problems.
Let’s, however, be very clear. It is President Barack Obama’s problem now. It is Obama’s responsibility as commander-in-chief to take all necessary leadership and actions to quickly resolve this crisis. Some reports have found evidence that allegedly indicates that deaths of veterans have occurred as a result of the administrative failures of the VA. One White House official reported that President Obama was “madder than hell” about the VA scandal. An Obama White House aide told “Face the Nation” on CBS that “Obama is demanding that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and others in the administration continue to fix these things until they’re functioning the way that our veterans believe they should.”
I believe that all veterans should be treated with equal respect. All veterans should receive all the benefits that they are entitled, including good health care without bureaucratic red tape and prolonged waiting list. We are all aware that before and after the enactment of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the problem of racism and racial discrimination in the delivery of quality health care remains a serious problem. While 10 million or more people have health care as a result of
ACA, there are still millions of Black Americans and Latino Americans who do not have health care insurance coverage.
Black American veterans are facing a double whammy. They are confronted with the inadequacies of the VA as well as the racism in society that makes it more difficult to get quality health care in traditional public and private health care systems. And for Black female vets, there’s a triple whammy. This is why it is urgent to call urgent attention to the struggles and challenges that confront Black veterans.
When I was a member of the Wilmington Ten in North Carolina in the 1970s, I saw firsthand the disproportionately high percentage of Black American Vietnam veterans who were imprisoned for long periods of unjust incarceration. Even though many of those veterans had served with valor and honor in that tragic war in Southeast Asia, too many went to prison because of inadequate health care and unemployment and war-related problems.
In 2014, many returning Black American veterans are also ending up in jails and prisons. Many return to trouble with the law while seeing the persistent absence of good health care and the lack of productive employment opportunities. It is so important, therefore, that we should not forget the needs and aspirations of all our veterans. In particular, Black American veterans should be remembered and supported not just on Memorial Day, but on every day. We thank God for their service and sacrifice. Let’s show our vets our continuous salute, respect and support.
Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. is president of Education Online Services Corporation and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and can be reached at: http://drbenjaminfchavisjr.wix.com/drbfc.