President Obama should choose a post-9/11 vet, or at least someone "extremely familiar" with the community, to replace Eric Shinseki as Veterans Affairs Secretary, a veterans advocacy group insisted today.
"We are the growing need. We are the future," Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) CEO Paul Rieckhoff said. "We're not a problem, we are the solution."
A post-9/11 vet with a thorough understanding of technology could "turn the VA from Borders into Amazon," better serving the growing number of vets struggling with complex injuries such as traumatic brain injury, he said.
The 200,000-member organization in its 10 th year outlined an 8-point plan today to help get the beleaguered VA back on track.
In addition to seeking leadership, Rieckhoff said the VA's current IT system - which includes the scandal-plagued scheduling system that left veterans waiting months for appointments - is "woefully outdated."
"And the backlog itself is scandalous," he continued. "The fact that it got that bad and took that much to get the country to act is, in our opinion, scandalous as well."
Rieckhoff, himself a veteran of the Iraq war, called for increased presidential leadership, and criticized Obama for his "slow response" to the wait time scandal, which surfaced weeks ago when a whistleblower alleged that hospital executives had been cooking the books to maintain a façade of efficiency.
"It shouldn't have taken four weeks for the president to respond," Rieckhoff said. ""People knew this was going on. If you weren't outraged, you weren't paying attention."
Marine Corporal Aaron Mankin, who was severely wounded by an improvised explosive device in Iraq, joined Rieckhoff in saying that in addition to Congress and the president acting, responsibility also lands on the American people.
"Everywhere I go, people want to tell me, 'Thank you, thank you for your service.' They want to shake my hand and hug my neck or buy me a beer," Mankin said. "The time for saying thank you has passed. The time of being thankful is now. … And we need the American people in a way that maybe we never have before."
For Rieckhoff and Mankin, the systemic failure of the VA has been one of the most troubling.
Rieckhoff also demanded a full criminal investigation, saying those who broke the law by falsifying records should "be rooted out … and brought to justice" where warranted. He also urged Congress to pass the VA Management and Accountability Act, which would allow the VA secretary to fire employees.
As for Shinseki, "It was clear that Secretary Shinseki had to go, and we salute his service. … But now we've got a new challenge before us," Rieckhoff said. "America is finally paying attention … [but] we're very concerned that the country's going to turn the page."
Bowe Bergdahl, the American prisoner of war who was recovered from the Taliban in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay prisoners Saturday, was invited to join the organization and welcomed home by his fellow service members.
"We're happy he's home," Rieckhoff said. "We're happy America stands by its own - and now America's got to stand by its own again, once they come home. You know, Bowe Bergdahl's probably going to go get services at the VA. He needs to know that the VA's going to be there."