I first became involved with the Veteran Affairs Depart ment in 1945 when my division, the 104th Infantry, was demobilized in California. My legs had been buffeted in a bizarre incident toward the end of combat and would require treatment for the rest of my life.
There was no clinic in Pittsfield at the time so I was forced to go to Springfield. The VA office was in a shabby building somewhere and its drab furnishings were depressing. The place smelled fittingly musty.
When my turn came, I was told to go into a small office where a middle-aged man was seated behind a desk jammed tight with papers. But the surprise came when the man spoke. He had a definite foreign accent and never looked up from the papers he was studying on the desktop. This held true through the entire five minutes I was with him and I never saw his face full on. He used medical terms I did not understand because of his accent and finally said I was being sent to a laboratory where they would assess my condition and build arch supports that would alleviate my pains and aches.
That was how it went for a couple of years until I returned to Columbia University to complete my degree. I re ceived a letter from the Vet erans Department telling me where and when to report. The New York office was much bigger and had a brighter atmosphere than the one in Spring field but the shock of my first visit had a terrific impact.
When I went into the dressing room to strip down for analysis, I found about 30 young men in various stages of undress, all chatting cheerfully. The major thing they had in common was there were limbs missing from their bodies, arms and legs, one or both.
When my turn came with the doctor, I could barely speak. He kept looking at me strangely as he described my problems and the possible alleviations. One of them was new kinds of support, some of them up above my knees. I was thinking about all the young men in the locker room who seemed to be taking their losses in stride, smiling and joking in a normal manner.
Back in Pittsfield, I was also back in the hands of Spring field. A few years later, I dropped out of the system, discarding the appointment letters without opening them and buying the supports with my own money.
When the VA clinic opened in Pittsfield, I applied for reinstatement. Since then I have been treated most satisfactorily here and sent to the VA hospital in Leeds when the local office didn’t have the needed equipment or personnel.
There have been various doctors over the years but the present chief, Dr. Mark Selby, has been the most proficient and understanding of them all. He and his people help you right down the line, cheerfully and professionally. Con trary, apparently, to the na tional situation, they also have worked with alacrity, at least in my case.
Which brings me to the point of this column: the dump ing of Gen. Eric Shin seki, full general of the United States Army and former secretary of the Depart ment of Veteran Affairs, from his job last week as the result of the revelations of innumerable horrible events in the care and security of our nation’s wounded and sick.
We have a problem with veterans nowadays. It makes no difference whether you were brutally wounded in an Afghan firefight or typed clean manuscripts in a Washington office. Every veteran is a so-called hero. And because of our recent foreign policies, there are now six million under the government’s protection, primarily for health care.
The politicians are responsible for this heroic differentiation, mostly Republicans but some frightened Democrats as well. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, one of our top prisoner heroes in the Vietnam War, wants it both ways with the armed forces. He uses us as his big political stick while cutting budgets. He wants us to fight the Taliban to the bone but keep the price down.
Gen. Shinseki has been on the hate list in Washington bureaucracy ever since he testified that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was wrong when he said Iraq could be taken and occupied by a small number of troops. It would take several hundred thousand, Shinseki said, and his fate was sealed.
Under President Obama, Shinseki took over control of veterans affairs, which was a muddled mess after years of incompetent leaders who were chosen in payoffs or for ideological control.
In the Army, working up to four-star general, Shinseki had been doggedly and competently brilliant despite racial bias (he is of Japanese extraction) and has instituted several programs to improve our standing Army and provide better care for veterans.
It has been a difficult job to try to unsnarl all the wrongs that have screwed up the department for all these years while ambitious men used the VA as a stepping stone for all their ambitions. I do not know how much Shinseki had ac com plished so far, but efforts were being made. And Presi dent Obama, having screwed up several of these situations over the years, tried to make some amends by sacrificing this man who had given his all for his country, and once again the country is paying a price.
It is one thing to make every veteran a hero no matter what his true status. What has been done to Shinseki is a blot on our nation and a danger to our future. Once again, partisan politics rules the day.
Milton Bass is a regular Eagle