What would a Mitt Romney Administration really mean for America’s veterans?
On Tuesday, Romney named former President George H.W. Bush and former Sen. Bob Dole as honorary co-chairmen of his Veterans and Military Families for Romney. But perhaps more significantly, the group’s national co-chairs, who will advise Romney on veteran policy if he is elected, include James Nicholson, former secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) under President George W. Bush.
Some veterans advocates say Romney’s decision to tap Nicholson, who abruptly resigned from the VA in 2007 amid controversy, as well as Anthony Principi and James Peake, who also presided over the VA during George W. Bush’s two terms in the White House, could signal that Romney will embrace some of the policies of the Bush years, which were widely considered to be tough times for veterans.
“A Romney presidency would be a disaster for veterans, as evidenced by whom he’s chosen to advise him,” says Patrick Bellon, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, a veterans’ advocacy organization. “I think these choices should give all Americans pause. How can voters support a candidate who is showing so clearly that he learned nothing from Bush’s failures? It would be a mistake to trust people like Nicholson who failed veterans in such epic fashion.”
Nicholson, a wealthy attorney, decorated Vietnam veteran and former chair of the Republican National Committee who served as VA Secretary from 2005 to 2007, said in a statement on Romney’s website, “Veterans have served our nation proudly for decades. They deserve not only our respect and admiration, but top quality care for the rest of their lives. Mitt Romney will work tirelessly to ensure that veterans and military families are always cared for. That is why I am proud to join him in his campaign to keep America strong and prosperous.”
But the “top quality care” to which Nicholson refers was reportedly hard to come by when he ran things. A cover story in Newsweek in March 2007 reported that the VA under Nicholson was an overloaded bureaucracy that was unprepared for the onslaught of troops returning from war and was failing America’s wounded.
USA Today reported that same year that the VA’s clinics and hospitals suffered from hundreds of problems, including worn carpet, damaged floor tiles, leaking roofs and cockroach infestations.
“Gov. Romney will bring a new approach to the White House and look for every way possible to help our veterans,” responds a campaign spokesman. “He cares deeply about veterans and takes this issue very seriously.”
While at the VA, Nicholson, who could not be reached for comment for this story, reportedly defended a budget measure that sought major cuts in staffing for VA health care, cut funding for nursing home care, and blocked four legislative measures aimed at streamlining the backlog of veterans benefit claims.
Nicholson, a devout Catholic who also served as President Bush’s ambassador to the Vatican, was also criticized after an electronic file stolen from the home of a VA analyst in May 2006 revealed Social Security numbers and other personal information for more than 2 million U.S. military personnel.
Nicholson told Congress that the VA would offer free ID theft protection for one year to those affected by the theft, but once the data was recovered, the VA reportedly rescinded the offer.
When Nicholson resigned, Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the largest group representing veterans of America’s two post-9/11 wars, said, “The VA under Secretary Nicholson has been woefully unprepared for the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, consistently underestimating the number of new veterans who would seek care, and failing to spend the money Congress allotted to treat mental-health issues.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Ryan Williams, a spokesperson for Romney’s campaign, defended Romney’s choices for his new veterans panel. “We’re happy to have the support of people like Jim Nicholson, Anthony Principi and others,” Williams says. “But at the end of the day, Gov. Romney will bring a new approach to the White House and look for every way possible to help our veterans. He cares deeply about veterans and takes this issue very seriously.”
Williams emphasized that the biggest problem facing veterans is the economy, “which is not turning around. Young veterans are returning facing staggering numbers: 30 percent of male veterans face unemployment. Gov. Romney has laid out plans to reform the tax code and cut regulations to create jobs that will help these veterans get back to work.”
Virtually everyone interviewed for this story agreed that in addition to unemployment, there are still major problems facing veterans, namely the increasing backlog of VA benefits claims. Bellon insists that the Obama Administration is working hard to fix these problems, which, he says, “were caused by the very people who now sit on Romney’s veterans advisory board. Changing a monumental, unresponsive bureaucracy doesn’t happen quickly, but we’re on the right track.”
Williams strongly disagrees. “The benefits backlog has doubled under Obama to nearly a million,” he says. “Gov. Romney realizes we have an unacceptable bureaucracy at the VA, and as president he would reduce that backlog by eliminating bureaucracy and creating a reliable electronic claims process. He will modernize the VA.”
According to Bellon, electronic records have been in the works for years. “To take credit for this would be dishonest,” he says.
As for the backlog, Bellon says it is increasing because so many more troops are coming home. “Demand has increased,” he says. “I’m not saying there isn’t a lot more work to be done by President Obama at the VA, but President Bush totally neglected it, and Nicholson treated the VA like a private insurance company. He created a culture of denying veteran claims. I fear we’ll see this again if Romney is elected.”
In terms of addressing veteran unemployment, Obama has evidently sharpened his focus in recent months. In February, he unveiled a new $5 billion plan that the administration says will provide thousands of jobs to unemployed veterans. The president’s efforts seem to be paying off. While jobs overall remained stagnant in June, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans dropped from 12.7 percent in May to 9.5 percent in June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report released this week.
The Veterans Jobs Corps initiative will reportedly give $166 million in grant money to communities that show a preference for hiring post-9/11 veterans for new law enforcement positions, and $320 million in grant money to fire departments who pledge to hire and train new veterans.
Obama, who’s called on Congress to act on the initiative, also recently announced a new “We Can’t Wait” initiative that will help thousands of service members with manufacturing and other high-demand skills receive civilian credentials and licenses.
Also, in just the last two months, more than 27,000 unemployed veterans have submitted applications for a new VA-funded skills-based program that pays veterans for up to a year of education toward an associate degree or a non-college-degree or certificate.
In addition to unemployment, another massive problem plaguing veterans are mental health issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicide. The VA, which even veterans advocates who support Obama acknowledge is still a long way from adequately addressing the mental health crisis among veterans, just announced the hiring of 1,600 new mental health care workers.
These workers include psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health nurses and marriage and family therapists. An additional 300 people will be added to support this new clinical staff.
Michelle Obama and Jill Biden have also stepped up efforts in recent months to improve mental health care services for veterans as part of their Joining Forces program for military families, which was launched last year. In April, the first and second ladies announced an agreement with 150 nursing organizations and 500 nursing schools to educate nurses on combat-related injuries such as PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
In January, Mrs. Obama announced a similar pledge by 135 medical schools to educate future physicians and increase research for PTSD and TBI.
So how would Romney address the mental health situation among veterans? While Romney spokesman Williams says that Romney believes veterans “deserve a VA that is functional and that is actually meeting their needs,” he didn’t supply many specifics.
No one really knows yet just how Romney will change the VA. Last fall at a Veterans Day meeting with veterans in South Carolina, he said he thought that privatizing the VA might be a good idea.
At the meeting, Romney reportedly said, “Sometimes you wonder, would there be some way to introduce some private sector competition, somebody else that could come in and say, you know, each soldier gets X-thousand dollars attributed to them and then they can choose whether they want to go on the government system or the private system and then it follows them, like what happens with schools in Florida where they have a voucher that follows them. Who knows?”
Veterans organizations—even the typically conservative Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)—lashed out at Romney’s privatization idea. VFW spokesman Jerry Newberry told Talking Points Memo at the time, “The VFW doesn’t support privatization of veterans health care. This is an issue that seems to come around every election cycle.”
Romney later backed off and insisted he did not actually have a proposal for privatizing the VA.
The latest polls show Romney with a substantial lead over Obama among veterans. In a May 29 Gallup Poll, veterans, who make up about 13 percent of the adult population and consist mostly of older men, supported Romney over Obama for president by 58 percent to 34 percent.
These veterans could be responding to Romney’s familiar Republican mantra that the Democratic incumbent is weakening the military (a claim Obama has rejected).
Williams tells The Daily Beast, “The president has proposed devastating defense cuts, but Gov. Romney disagrees with those cuts. Gov. Romney doesn’t believe we should reduce our military, he believes we need to strengthen it, with more ships, and by increasing the number of active duty troops by 100,000 over the next several years.”
Despite the poll numbers, some veterans don’t think Romney would be good for veterans. Howard Foard, 34, a first lieutenant in the Army who left active duty in 2002 with a 100 percent disability rating, only to be downgraded to zero percent by the VA, says, “Romney’s tough talk about the military, his saber rattling, reminds me of Bush, who never considered the impact wars and multiple deployments have on the troops. The VA was totally unprepared to take care of me when I came home.”
Foard adds, “Obama is more careful about putting troops in harm’s way, and he cares more about military families than Bush did; there are far more programs available now. I wonder if Romney even considers the unthinkable impact it will have on the overburdened VA if he adds thousands of troops and puts us into more wars.”
But Corey Samson, 28, a former Marine private first class who was deployed twice to Afghanistan and now lives near Los Angeles and is looking for a job, thinks Romney is the better choice.
“The president says he cares about military families, but he wants to drastically cut military spending. That doesn’t make any sense,” says Samson. “Romney, who’ll fix the economy, would be a much better president for all Americans, especially veterans. I think he truly cares about the military.”
In a statement this week announcing his veterans group, Romney said, “As president, I will be an advocate for veterans and their families and will always fight to ensure that they get the opportunities and care they have earned.”