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Analysts Discuss the Military’s Treatment of Veterans

March 2, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, what’s your analysis of what’s going on? You heard what Dana just said and what the man from Salon.com just said.

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, I think, first, Gates is doing a good job. You can imagine what just happened, that the Army went into a defensive crouch. And some secretaries of defense — normally, the previous one — may have gone along with that defensive crouch, but Gates seems impatient with it, and he seems to be firing people left and right.

I saw him out on 395 firing people as I drove by. So, it is a sign of new leadership.

The deeper question of what causes it, which Mark Benjamin and others were talking about, and what Dana Priest was talking about, it seems to me there are a couple of things that one can surmise. One is the accounting system in this government is totally screwed up, on this, as in so many other things.

Priest was talking about the supplemental budget, not going in the real budget. We have so many gimmicks, it becomes hard to normally appreciate where the money is going, how accountable it is.

The Veterans Affairs has gotten a decent amount of money, 77 percent increase, as they’ll quickly tell you. But how it’s being accounted for, because it’s all done with tricks and mirrors for budgetary reasons, it fuzzes up everything.

And the second thing, which I think underlines a lot of this, is that they didn’t — when they realized they were going to have a much bigger war on their hands than they thought, I don’t think anybody sat back and said, “What are the downstream effects of this going to be?” And the outpatient, and the brain injuries, and all that stuff was a downstream effect of a surprisingly big war.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, some people have suggested that Bob Gates has now done away with no-fault government for a while in the United States. Is it that big a deal, do you think, what Gates has done?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I give him credit. I mean, he has stepped up and said, “The buck does stop here, and I want answers.”

And one of the people that did get fired, Gen. Weightman, I thought gave us a view of what happened here. We’re talking about troops, wounded warriors, who are going up to 18 months, in some cases, in this limbo-like status, that David has described, before they’re determined whether, in fact, they can be returned to duty or they’re going to be discharged, and when they’re discharged, what kind of support and subsidy they will receive.

And he explained one of the reasons why this case — in the past, many of these people would have just been discharged, but they can’t discharge them, because they don’t have enough troops. It’s that simple. They don’t have enough troops.

They’re having trouble, Jim, right now. They’re having waivers on criminal records, on academic non-achievement to get people into the military. They had to keep these people in the military.

I mean, that’s one of the — in addition to the bureaucratic maze that David has described, and incompetence, there was an imperative here to keep people in uniform, not to let them return to civilian life. That’s an amazing statement about where we are as a people.

Gen. Weightman put it very bluntly. He said this is the longest war we have fought in this country without a draft, and it’s true, since the Revolutionary War. And, you know, it is a long, long time.

A conflict of the classes?

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
This is a war unlike any war we've ever been through. One-third of 1 percent of Americans, those in uniform and their families, are the only ones making any sacrifice, the only ones suffering.

JIM LEHRER: David, let's not forget Dana Priest brought it up, as well, the Veterans Affairs, Secretary Nicholson was on this program. And this is after the Bob Woodruff, the ABC documentary talking about serious brain injuries, and there are some problems there that need to be addressed.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, the people with not obvious apparent injuries leading horrible lives because of what's happened to them.

One of the things that strikes me is words like FUBAR and snafu occur in war time because unexpected things happen, big bureaucracies, which are required to fight wars, don't know to deal with them, and you get these phenomenal errors.

You got them in World War II. We had them in this war. But you need a leadership that is always on the lookout for the snafus. And I'm not sure we've had that kind of dynamic leadership that's always on the lookout. As Gates said, it was a leadership problem.

JIM LEHRER: That's what Gates said. Gates said this was not a competency problem so much as a leadership problem, so the people who are there know how to do their jobs, and they do them well.

MARK SHIELDS: It is a leadership problem, Jim, but I'd also add that this is a war unlike any war we've ever been through. One-third of 1 percent of Americans, those in uniform and their families, are the only ones making any sacrifice, the only ones suffering.

The rest of us have been patriotically asked to take tax cuts, a series of tax cuts, to put a magnet, a "Support our Troops" magnet on the back of an SUV, and kind of saying, "Well, we're supporting our troops."

And the reality is, all of the sacrifice, all of the suffering is being borne by them.

JIM LEHRER: But wouldn't then it follow, Mark, if that's the case, a small number of people are doing the sacrificing, then a small number of people should get the attention for the damage being done.

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely. Absolutely they should. Absolutely they should. But, I mean, you know, it goes without saying. They don't have any access or the kind of access that, political action committees around town, that other interests have. I mean, it's that blunt.

DAVID BROOKS: I don't quite see it quite in the class conflict way. I think war has unexpected things. This was an unexpected war. And then you get weird things that happen.

For example, one of the good things that's happened in this war, if you survive the first couple minutes after something happens to you in Iraq, apparently you generally survive. So we have fewer deaths, but more injuries.

And because we're actually so good at battlefield medicine, we have these more injuries that are overbearing the system. And so the system doesn't adapt to those sorts of changes.

And so there's a whole series of complexities that the system, as a bureaucracy, is just not going to adapt to. So that's why you do need a backbreaking leadership that's constantly asking, "What is unexpected? Where are we messing up? And when we mess up, which is always going to happen, how do we fix it?" And that's what Gates finally seems to be offering.

MARK SHIELDS: Gates is, but, you know, if you accept the premise, David, that war demands equality of sacrifice, if you accept that, which is an American value up until this war, OK, and you go to any college campus -- and I challenge you, next time you ask, "Who here's for all-volunteer service?" All the hands go up. "Who's going to volunteer?" No hands go up.

I mean, that's what it is. I mean, you tell me it isn't class. It's class.

DAVID BROOKS: I'm not disputing your larger point that we should have had a broader sacrifice and that the president, once we were going to war, should have said, "We've got to change"...

DAVID BROOKS: No, I'm not disputing you on that. I'm not sure it's the most germane thing to this particular problem.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it gives everybody then a sense that they're in it. I mean, this war, this has been a segregated war. This has been a segregated war, in the sense that the people who are fighting it are the only ones.

The role of the media

David Brooks
The New York Times
But then once the -- and this is the power of the Washington Post and the New York Times and other big papers. They put it on the front page, and then it was on the cover of Newsweek, and then it broke big.

JIM LEHRER: What about the continuing thing that both the reporters said, that this news didn't just come, voom, you know, out of the sky here in the last two or three weeks. This has been reported on a consistent basis within the military and even within some elements of the press, and nobody cared. Nobody did a darn thing.

DAVID BROOKS: And to me -- and I really wasn't aware of how much had been reported in Salon. I wasn't aware until Dana Priest just said it, that there had been a hearing.

JIM LEHRER: In 2005, and nobody paid any attention, including us.

DAVID BROOKS: And I can -- just as a journalist, there's a lot going on, medical care, outpatient, that's kind of boring when there's a war going on. You're debating the surge.

But then once the -- and this is the power of the Washington Post and the New York Times and other big papers. They put it on the front page, and then it was on the cover of Newsweek, and then it broke big.

And that is actually one of the purposes of the media, is to put things on the front page, and that really demonstrates it.

JIM LEHRER: But Gates, unless I missed something here, Bob Gates may be the first high-level federal official of any administration who said publicly, when first -- you know, when this thing first, "Thank you, press, for giving us the bad news that we didn't know about before that." That's a new wrinkle, too, is it not?

MARK SHIELDS: It is. It is, and it's the perfect response.

And it was a tone-deaf response -- I mean, Secretary Harvey sealed his fate by promoting Kevin Kiley to that position, I mean, Gen. Kevin Kiley, who had been the epitome of defensive crouch in dealing with this, and, "Oh, no, let's blame the messenger," and that was the antithesis of Gates' approach.

The military's reaction

David Brooks
The New York Times
Every bureaucracy I've ever known goes into a defensive crouch when attacked. And they always have some argument to make, some body of evidence to say, well, there was this, there was that, we're not doing so badly here.

JIM LEHRER: How do you explain that? How do you explain something like that? Or is there an explanation?

DAVID BROOKS: Every bureaucracy I've ever known goes into a defensive crouch when attacked. And they always have some argument to make, some body of evidence to say, well, there was this, there was that, we're not doing so badly here. And so they cling to that; it's human nature.

But the exception is not that they do that, but that you have a leader who doesn't. And what Gates said about the initial press conference, and then just today, when he said that, "I'm disappointed that some in the Army don't recognize the gravity," you can just imagine the reverberations through the Pentagon, because the head of any agency is usually captured by the agency. And he's not being right now.

JIM LEHRER: What about the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Jim Nicholson? How is he faring in this so far?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he ought not to make any more public appearances. I mean, that statement that he made to Judy that, you know, they're in for dental work, I mean, just has resonated all around town. It's echoed to the point --now, in fairness to Jim Nicholson, Walter Reed is an Army installation. It's not a Veterans Administration.

JIM LEHRER: We're talking about separate things here.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: But it's the same war, the same -- right.

MARK SHIELDS: The same war, and the failure to provide the kind of care and prepare for it, in spite of the budget increases that have been mentioned, the dimensions of this, and to play down the seriousness of it.

I mean, to say that there were several hundred brain injuries and wounds rather than the thousands of post-traumatic disorders that people have suffered and are now living with. I mean, the story of a soldier paralyzed in a wheelchair having to go a half-a-mile to get his medicines, I mean, it's just --it's incredible.

Reaction from Congress

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I will say this, that in talking to people on the Hill, among people who have been longtime supporters of the military, and defenders of the military in the Congress, there's a sense of fury and betrayal at the treatment of the troops.

JIM LEHRER: David, what did you think of what Dana Priest said, that also we do now have divided government, and that there is tension and oversight that wasn't there before, and that it is playing a part in this?

DAVID BROOKS: It will, and it certainly will next week. But, to me, I really think the media was the key, because once it was on the front page of the Washington Post, then it exploded. And the Democrats subsequently said things, but they didn't have to. It exploded because of the Washington Post.

MARK SHIELDS: I will say this, that in talking to people on the Hill, among people who have been longtime supporters of the military, and defenders of the military in the Congress, there's a sense of fury and betrayal at the treatment of the troops.

I mean, they blame themselves, in many cases, for not being aware of them, but they're absolutely furious that this has taken place. So, sure, the cameras are there, the microphones are there, there's going to be hearings. But this has, I think, legs and an intensity that is going to carry it for a long time.

DAVID BROOKS: By the way, one area I'd like to see -- I think the numbers, the dollars that are paid in compensation are insanely small to these people. When you look at the number and you look at a middle-class lifestyle, it's just pathetic. And I hope, in some of the hearings, people address that, that issue, as well.

JIM LEHRER: Is that going to be an issue? Do you agree it should be an issue?

MARK SHIELDS: I do agree it should be an issue. But, I mean, listen, you saw the poor guy from South Carolina, for goodness's sakes, whose wife had to quit her job, and come up here, and take care of him, essentially, in a custodial state for 18 months. They denied him anything, said, "No, no, you were retarded before you came into the military."

JIM LEHRER: Yes. And remember the guy in Bob Woodruff's piece on ABC, the young soldier who went home to Texas...

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: ... and was worse off, because he couldn't be treated, because the V.A. didn't have a way to treat him at a facility that was close to his house.

MARK SHIELDS: And David has praised -- and rightly so -- the Washington Post for doing it.

But Bob Woodruff of ABC on that special he did the other night deserves the highest praise, because it was the first 20 or 25 minutes about him, and his own experience, and his own family. He devoted the last 35 minutes of that show to the treatment of the soldiers.

JIM LEHRER: You bet.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, it was not about him, and I give him great credit for that.

JIM LEHRER: And you have the feeling he's going to continue this part of the story...

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: ... forever, yes, yes, yes. Thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.