Veterans’ advocate Paul Rieckhoff

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An authority on the new veteran community, Rieckhoff weighs in on the breakdown in services at U.S. VA hospitals.

Named one of the "50 Most Powerful People in D.C." by GQ magazine, Paul Rieckhoff is founder and chief executive officer of the nonpartisan group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the first and largest organization for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the U.S. He served as an Army First Lieutenant and infantry platoon leader and was one of the first Iraq vets to publicly criticize the war. Rieckhoff writes regularly for national websites and publications and gave an account of his experiences and activism afterwards in the critically acclaimed book, Chasing Ghosts. The Amherst graduate previously worked as a high school football coach and Wall Street analyst.


Tavis: The revelations about the failures of the VA hospitals to adequately serve the medical needs of our veterans is an appalling example of how our country has not yet come to grips with what should our commitment be to these men and women who have served in our military.

Every day, some 22 veterans commit suicide. Let me say that again. Every day, some 22 vets commit suicide, a stat that should shame all of us.

Pleased to have back on this program tonight, Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, IAVA. We never seem to meet under good circumstances [laugh].

Paul Rieckhoff: No. I wish we did. I wish we did. I’m the bad news guy, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: No, you’re the guy always addressing the bad news.

Rieckhoff: That’s right, that’s right.

Tavis: But, I mean, all jokes aside, it would be nice one day for us to have a conversation on TV or radio where we’re actually celebrating something good.

Rieckhoff: Yeah. Well, I think there’s a lot to celebrate in our community, actually. You got about 2.8 million men and women who went to Iraq and Afghanistan and a lot of them are doing really well. About a million of them are going to school using the GI Bill. They’re starting businesses, they’re community activists or local leaders, they’re parents. And they are the other side of the story that I don’t think is told enough.

You think back to the World War II generation. We call them our greatest generation. They went on to be an incredible group of leaders. I think that’s what you’re going to see from this post-9/11 generation as well. Unfortunately, we’ve got some what we call five-meter targets in the military that are creeping up on us.

But I think long-term, this is a generation of men and women who are going to do some extraordinary things. And I think that’s reason to have hope.

Tavis: So juxtapose that good news, that impending good news, with what we’re dealing with now with this VA scandal.

Rieckhoff: Yeah. This is a really catastrophic failure. You know, I came home from Iraq in 2004 and I think we were battling with issues back then about body armor and about whether or not we had the right equipment. Here we are 10 years later and we find out that the VA has failed us.

And this started in Phoenix. Folks may have seen the story, but there was initially an allegation that 40 veterans died waiting for care at the Phoenix VA. Initially, the VA stonewalled on it. They denied the allegations. We found out that folks did die on this wait list and it was even worse.

There were secret lists. In Phoenix, almost 1,700 vets on a secret waiting list because folks were feeling pressure to show wait times were only 14 days and they were much longer. Now the investigation has expanded to 40 cities. The FBI is involved.

And I think most of all what’s happened is our veterans have lost confidence in the VA. The Secretary has now resigned in scandal. Here we are weeks later and the position is still unfilled. And I think it’s a real failure on the part of all Americans. You can’t just put this on Washington.

We knew this was a problem. There were IG testimonies, there were groups like ours sounding the alarm. I was on your show talking about these issues and I think it’s been a real failure. There’s an opportunity to turn it around, but the president’s got to step up right now.

Tavis: The Obama administration. How do you rate the way they are handling it at the moment? How do you grade it?

Rieckhoff: I think they’ve done a terrible job. It’s an “F” and it’s a real disappointment. I think the president…

Tavis: An “F”? That’s a…

Rieckhoff: I really do, I really do. If veterans are dying on wait lists and a Secretary has had to resign in scandal, that’s a failure and I think it goes all the way to the Commander in Chief and I wish that wasn’t the case. That’s bad no matter what political party you come from.

But I think they were very slow to respond. This scandal went on for almost four weeks before the president addressed it and responded. Secretary Shinseki resigned. They didn’t have a replacement in place.

I mean, how did they not know they were going to need a replacement for Secretary Shinseki when the whole world knew he was going to resign? And even now, there haven’t been criminal investigations. They haven’t reformed the VA. They haven’t gotten to the bottom of what happened.

And most of all, I think the president needs to speak to the veterans. He needs to come to us, come to our community, and say, look, I’m working on this and I’m going to get it right. But, unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.

So he’s got to rebuild that trust as well because, unfortunately, most veterans are interacting with America and through the government through the VA. So it’s under President Obama’s watch and he’s got an opportunity to fix it, Tavis. He really does, but he’s got to flip that switch fast and he’s got to be very aggressive.

Tavis: He may flip the switch fast, but you do acknowledge it’s going to take time to fix this. I mean…

Rieckhoff: Absolutely.

Tavis: Problems this deep, you know, don’t get fixed overnight.

Rieckhoff: This didn’t start under the Obama administration. That’s for sure. And we all know that we rushed to war and we weren’t ready for what was going to happen in Iraq afterwards especially.

But now we’re finding out we weren’t ready for what was going to happen after Iraq too. The Bush administration failed to plan for Iraq. The Obama administration failed to plan for what happens afterward.

But there have been institutional problems for decades. It’s very hard to fire people. It’s a very unmanageable bureaucracy. Until recently, a lot of their systems were still on paper. They weren’t even using technology. But they’ve also had six years. This is not new.

We’ve met with the White House. We’ve sounded the alarm on the media for years. And, unfortunately, they weren’t listening or, if they were listening, they weren’t taking it seriously enough. So now it’s been forced upon them and, as we go into an election season, this is really going to hurt.

Every Congressional candidate, every Senator, is going to go back to communities and they’re going to run for office and where are they going to do it? Veterans’ halls. Veterans’ halls are where they’re going to make their case and they’re going to get hit in the face with this very hard.

And that needs to happen because really it’s going to be pox on all their houses politically because they both let it happen. And the American people now have got to force them to respond and respond together. It might be the only thing Republicans and Democrats can actually agree on are Veterans Affairs.

Recently, we had John McCain and Bernie Sanders working together. That doesn’t happen on anything, but it’s happening now on veterans. And maybe that’s another piece of hope for the future as we go into an election campaign.

Tavis: I think you and I discussed this on my radio show at one point that this day would come, and I think it has arrived. So unless I’m missing somebody, there may be one other, but since you mentioned John McCain, he’s one of the last one or two people serving in the House or the Senate.

Rieckhoff: In the Senate, there are only two.

Tavis: Only two.

Rieckhoff: Right now, John McCain and there’s a new senator, John Walsh, who’s from Montana.

Tavis: He just came. Got it.

Rieckhoff: But that’s it. All the old guys are gone. You know, Bob Dole and (inaudible), a generation of World War II.

Tavis: You know where I’m going with this question.

Rieckhoff: Yeah, absolutely.

Tavis: I mean, it seems to me that when you had back in the day members of Congress, presidents that served, there was a different kind of priority that these issues might have been given then.

But I wonder how much of this is lip service as opposed to having elected officials who know what it’s like to be in the trenches and have some real righteous indignation about seeing veterans treated this way?

Rieckhoff: You know, there’s always been a close collaboration and connection between activism and the vets’ community. If you go back since the beginning of America, I mean, veterans have always served overseas and then come home and been a part of their community. You know, from George Washington to the civil rights movement.

But in the last decade since we started in Iraq and Afghanistan, less than one half of one percent has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s never happened before in American history. It’s always been every community, every family.

When my father got drafted and my grandfather got drafted from the Bronx in New York, their whole neighborhood went. This is different. And I think what’s happened is, for politicians especially, it’s not personal. It’s not their kids. It’s not their skin in the game. It’s somebody else’s issue.

But there is an opportunity in the House. There are Republicans and Democrats, young veterans who are running for office who want to get involved in their communities, and I do think they represent a pragmatic political future. They’re not as partisan as the older generations and they want to get things done.

You know, they got things done in very tough situations in Iraq and Afghanistan despite the challenges and I think they’re looking to solve problems. And Washington is just one example of that.

Tavis: What do we about this increasing suicide rate?

Rieckhoff: This is our number one issue. IAVA members told us — we ask them every year. What’s most important to you? What do you want us to fight on? And they said suicide. 22 veterans a day are being lost.

And if we were losing that many people to Al Qaeda or to an enemy weapons system, we’d mobilize the whole country behind it. But that hasn’t happened. So IAVA has got a three-point strategy that we’re calling our Campaign to Combat Suicide.

We’ve got a bill in Congress called the Save Act. It’s very important to go through. It’ll provide much needed support. We want the president to issue an executive order and, all summer long, we’re going to be connecting a million veterans with suicide prevent resources.

Folks that are watching, go to our website. Go to You can help even if you don’t know a veteran. You can help us spread the word and help us save a life because we know — I work with veterans every day, Tavis. They call our hotlines, they work with our caseworkers.

If they get help at that critical transition period, they can go on and do great things. It’s about really mobilizing the country and supporting them, helping them get in a school and letting them know their communities care.

It’s not just the VA. It’s got to be church groups and businesses and schools. That’s where they can welcome home these veterans. No matter how you feel about the war, you’ve got a moral obligation to support our veterans. And now, especially as Afghanistan winds down, is the time for America to step up.

Tavis: As Afghanistan winds down, Iraq winds back up. Since you and I last talked, President Obama has sent troops back into Iraq. This conversation is always had about whether or not — not whether or not. The conversation is always had about the fact that many of us believe the country is war-weary.

But the question is whether or not veterans, whether or not military personnel, are war-weary. What do you make of us going back in again?

Rieckhoff: Oh, we are war-weary too. And the Iraqi people are war-weary too, right? Even more so, right? But I think, for our community, for our members, and we’ve got about 200,000 nationwide and growing fast, they’ve been at war for over a decade and the rest of the country has been watching “American Idol.”

You know, there’s been a real disconnect here and I think that that hasn’t served our foreign policy well, it hasn’t served our domestic politics well, and there’s been a real disconnect. So I meet folks who’ve done six, seven tours, kids who have moved five times, and that’s a tremendous human cost that I don’t think most Americans understand.

If you’re not personally involved, your family’s not personally involved in what’s happening in the wars overseas, it’s easy to forget about it. We jokingly sometimes call Afghanistan “Forgotistan.” Because we’ve got buddies over there right now fighting and dying and most folks aren’t paying attention.

So maybe there is a silver lining in the Iraq conflict is that we understand that the sacrifice has been great on the part of Americans and on the part of Iraqis and we recommit ourselves now to supporting them when they come home and throughout the rest of their lives. That’s what people really need to understand.

Conflict is not easy and it’s definitely not cheap. It’s going to take a long time and a lifetime of commitment and that’s what you sign up for as a nation when you send young people to war.

Tavis: I’m no expert. Obviously, you are, but it seems to me the more I talk to you and others about this that all of these dots are connected.

The dot of increasing suicide is connected to the dot of increasing tours of duty, is connected to increasing pressure on the VA to provide services for more and more veterans coming home from these ongoing wars that seem to never end. I think all these dots connect and we’re not connecting them.

Rieckhoff: They do. You know, I look for historic parallels, right? And I think what we’ve got now is essentially a public health crisis. If you think about suicide and traumatic brain injury and the physical sounds and the family stress, you’ve got a public health crisis that, if you include the families, is affecting 10 million people.

We haven’t seen a response really from philanthropy. We haven’t seen an adequate response from the government. Corporations have started to respond. Faith-based communities need to step up now. And what it reminds me of in some ways is the early days of the AIDS crisis.

People didn’t respond. They didn’t think it was a real problem. They didn’t understand how bad it was. And I think maybe, most of all, people thought that AIDS was a gay issue. It wasn’t. It was a national issue. It was global issue. And they think veterans are the government’s issue. It’s not. It’s every community’s issue.

We are you and you are us and we’re all in this together, and now is the time for us to step up and invest. And that’s what it is, Tavis. It’s not charity. It’s an investment. If you invest in these young men and women like the one I’ve got here today with me, they’re going to do great things.

The GI Bill produced a $7 return to the national economy for every dollar invested. So if you invest in these young veterans, they’re the future of America and they’re going to do some great things.

Tavis: Paul Rieckhoff of IAVA, always on the case and always honored to have you on this program.

Rieckhoff: Thank you, sir.

Tavis: Good to see you, my friend.

Rieckhoff: Appreciate your time.

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Last modified: June 28, 2014 at 2:41 am