Commander offers views of Congress, Trump policies during press conference

In what could be a preview of his upcoming congressional testimony, National Commander Charles E. Schmidt fiercely defended the need for a strong VA system and praised the Trump administration’s promise to rebuild the U.S. military during a press conference at the historic National Press Club in Washington on Wednesday. Schmidt was the featured speaker during the press club’s “Newsmaker” program.

“People can look at me and say, ‘Charlie, you look pretty healthy. You have health insurance. Why do you need your own health care system?' I just tell them, it’s not about me. It’s about millions of veterans who do need VA health care.” Schmidt, who is meeting with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Thursday, said that timely VA health care should be available to all veterans who wish to use it.

“During his confirmation hearings as VA Secretary, Dr. David Shulkin promised greater accountability, improved access, responsiveness and expanded access within his department. He has said that he opposes privatization and that it would not happen under his watch. The American Legion has so far been impressed with Secretary Shulkin but we do plan to hold his feet to the fire to help him deliver on those promises.”

While Schmidt said he recognizes the value of the VA “choice” program in some instances, he reiterated The American Legion’s concerns about outsourcing care. “There are instances when a private provider is a better option for some veterans. For instance, I live in Hines, Ore., which is more than 200 miles from the nearest VA hospital. In other cases – and these instances are getting fewer – veterans have had to wait far too long to be seen by the VA. So while The American Legion supports choice in some instances, let us not be fooled into believing that there are not some serious flaws with the Choice program. Delays, nonreimbursement for services and bureaucratic entanglements are constant experiences for many who have attempted to use the Choice program.”

He renewed the organization’s push for modernization of the disability claims process and chided the U.S. Senate for failing to act on it during the last Congress. “According to VA’s own 2016 numbers, nearly half a million appeals claims were waiting to be finally adjudicated. More than 80,000 claims were waiting for greater than 125 days. The American Legion finds this completely unacceptable. We believe the appeals modernization legislation, H.R. 457 introduced by Rep. Dina Titus, will simplify and speed up the process as well as make it more transparent. The House did its job in the last Congress, but the Senate refused to move on it.”

Schmidt also expressed concern for veterans exposed to environmental hazards during their military service.

“Many veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange are still not covered for benefits due to the dates or locations that they served. Storing and handling Agent Orange could be just as damaging to their health as spraying it. We are also seeing high cancer rates among servicemembers who participated in the clean-up work at Enewetak Atoll in the late 1970s. The atomic testing occurred in the 1940s and ‘50s, but plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. Yet their request for assistance is routinely denied by the federal government.”

National security, immigration and the Flag amendment were also addressed at the press conference. “The American Legion welcomes President Trump’s promise to rebuild our military. More than half of all Marine Corps aircraft were unflyable this past December,” Schmidt said before shifting his focus to terrorism. He cited the 9/11 Commission report which faulted the U.S. government for having a “failure of imagination,” when dealing with terrorist plots. “It certainly is not hard to imagine that ISIS operatives would try to enter our country by claiming to be refugees. How do we know this? Because they openly say they will. And when mobs chant 'Death to America' and 'Death to Israel' it isn’t hard to imagine their ultimate goals.”

He pointed out that it is the president and not the courts that have the “ultimate and constitutionally-mandated responsibility to keep us safe.”

Concerned about frequent and well-publicized incidents of flag desecration by protestors, Schmidt addressed one of the counter-arguments to the Flag amendment head-on. “The major argument that opponents of the amendment use is that desecration hardly ever happens. I challenge these desecration-deniers to Google it. They will find thousands of images of protestors doing just that.

“Some in Congress say the Flag amendment is a waste of their time and they have more pressing issues. My response: Pass it and we won’t waste your time anymore! Otherwise you will continue to hear from us.”

Schmidt also defended the media during luncheon remarks at the National Press Club American Legion Post 20. Jokingly referring to a recent Trump tweet about the press, Schmidt said, “You are not the enemies of America.” He cited legendary newspaper publisher William Randolph Heart’s strong support for the GI Bill in the 1940s, and, more recently, coverage of VA wait time scandals as instances where The American Legion and the media shared common goals.