Q&A: Veterans Day

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Q: What does your office do to serve veterans?

A: For all the honorable men and women who volunteer to join the U.S. Armed Forces and serve our country in uniform, I work to ensure the United States of America upholds its promises made to these patriots who put their lives on the line to protect and defend our sacred freedoms. As one of two Iowa U.S. Senators, I work tirelessly to represent my constituents whose service and sacrifice in the military make our communities and our nation stronger, safer and more secure.

Last year I started a veterans fellowship program in my Des Moines and Cedar Rapids offices to provide a point of contact for Iowa veterans and serve as a community outreach liaison. Iowans who have served in the military have intimate knowledge about issues and challenges facing veterans and it helps my office provide better service on the issues that matter most to them.

What's more, I prioritize constituent casework for veterans and their families to cut through red tape at the Department of Veterans Affairs. That may include working to obtain long-awaited military medals or tracking down benefits delays in the bureaucracy.

In addition, I have long served as a tenacious watchdog of the sprawling Veterans Health Administration to demand accountability and transparency, such as the inexcusable patient backlog scandal, as an example. I learned long ago that the federal bureaucracy requires a short leash. The culture of mismanagement and inept leadership at the VA has contributed to tragic patient deaths and eroded the public's trust in the covenant between members of our military and the federal government.

When the patient wait scandal in Arizona was exposed two years ago, Congress took swift action to provide additional resources to the VA and give veterans more flexibility to receive better care with the Veterans Choice program.

The "Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014" was enacted to root out the corruption and wrongdoing. Unfortunately, the federal bureaucracy moves at a snail's pace and until and unless people are held accountable, change is not going to happen. In fact, only one to six people "in charge" for patient-wait time problems at the VA have been fired in those two years. Manipulating wait times ought to be a fireable offense. Plain and simple.

It doesn't help veterans when the White House glosses over the facts and claims that wrongdoers have been punished when, in fact, they haven't been subject to consequences. The culture will not change unless people are fired from top to bottom. Building accountability and strengthening morale need to go hand-in-hand. It's not an either-or proposition. Let's remember a fundamental principle at stake here. From enlistment, to recruitment and throughout their military service, our men and women in uniform who serve the United States of America with honor and distinction have earned their military benefits. They had our backs and now we must give back to them. My advocacy also extends from our youngest military leaders who I am honored to nominate for our elite U.S. military service academies to POWs and MIAs and to the families of our fallen heroes.

The bottom line is this. America's veterans deserve to have confidence that the nation's VA medical facilities will uphold the highest standards of care and that they will be held to account if they fail to do so.

Most recently, I have worked to improve mental health care services for our service members and veterans, especially those who return from the front lines with post-traumatic stress disorder and other invisible wounds that are contributing to a growing opioid addiction and suicide crisis among our service members. I am committed to continue building awareness and identifying solutions and services for prevention, treatment and recovery that will restore hope and save lives.

Q: Do you have an update on the case of a deceased veteran for whom you joined with Sen. Joni Ernst and called upon the Secretary of the VA for answers regarding his death?

A: First, I offer my condolences to the family and loved ones of Alan Meisel, an Army veteran who served two tours of duty in Vietnam and lived for decades in Iowa. The VA determined his exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange led to Parkinson's disease. He passed away under very questionable circumstances this year in Texas. He qualified for $3,865 in monthly VA disability pension benefits and was promised free care for life. And yet, he was moved out of nursing care to a cheap rental home where he lived with two convicted sex offenders who were on parole. Sen. Ernst and I wrote the VA to investigate the circumstances of his passing. He was allegedly beaten by his roommates and died three months later, weighing only 102 pounds.

We have asked for answers regarding the fiduciary who was appointed by the VA for Mr. Meisel to protect him from fraud and abuse. Specifically, we want to know what oversight measures were taken by the VA to ensure the fiduciary was looking out for the best interests of Mr. Meisel.

I commend the couple from Des Moines who drew the public's attention to his death by contacting the Des Moines Register. They wrote "his death mattered so much to us, but it should matter to all citizens of the United States" who need to be aware that aging veterans like their friend apparently slipped through the cracks of a system. So far, there are many more questions than answers in Mr. Meisel's case. As long as I serve the people of Iowa in the United States Senate, I will work to do right by our veterans. As I say to the veterans I am honored to meet at my county meetings and to those who come to the war memorials in Washington, D.C., with the Honor Flights: You shall not be forsaken, nor forgotten.