A simple definition of “accountability” is a willingness or obligation to accept responsibility. No one more perfectly illustrates that definition than the men and women who have stood in harm’s way to protect and defend our nation. They have been nothing less than fully accountable to their missions and to the United States.
The federal government has struggled with accountability, in particular as the concept applies to veterans. Congress has tried, with limited success, to address the struggle by passing legislation to remove obstacles that prevent the Department of Veterans Affairs from terminating poor-performing managers and employees. VA has described accountability as a top priority in the aftermath of scandals blamed for costing some veterans their lives and in ill-fated efforts to discipline VA executives who abused their positions. When it comes to accountability, all the words are there. Execution has been the problem.
To The American Legion, accountability includes all that but runs much deeper, too.
First, you can find to whom we are accountable etched on the façade of VA Central Office in Washington: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” Abraham Lincoln’s words endure because they resonate with all who have sent sons and daughters into battle, which we continue to do today. They resonate because we are all accountable to him, to her, their widows and orphans.
Accountability includes the ability to discipline and, if necessary, terminate employees who don’t live up to their responsibilities. In many other ways, as I explained to a joint session of the Senate and House Committees on Veterans’ Affairs on Feb. 24, accountability – execution and not mere words – must extend to veterans who deserve rewarding careers that match their skills, training and discipline.
Accountability is lost when veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury are not offered effective alternative treatment programs that can help them and their families. Women veterans continue to lack consistent services at VA health-care facilities. Veterans exposed to Agent Orange and other environmental hazards are denied benefits and care because their exposures did not occur in the right places or times, or because years of research have not yet been completed. Our troops are under-resourced, and our force strength is shrinking, putting them and our national security at risk; the number of U.S. military personnel is expected to be about 200,000 lower this year than it was five years ago, as the war continues. A fully interoperable DoD-VA medical records system remains a work in progress many years and more than $1 billion after the need was first identified. Accountability to those who have served this nation has proven elusive for our government.
I am confident that the system can work, trust can be regained and accountability achieved. It’s going to take teamwork, transparency, leadership and commitment. It’s going to take more than words. That’s what Lincoln meant when, at the end of a bitter war, he let a healing nation know who deserves the fullest measure of our accountability.