Delays in Veteran benefit claims and Pentagon payroll errors show disrespect for the common good
On Memorial Day we remembered fellow citizens who put nation before self. Earlier this month we observed the founding of a nation and recognized those who stepped forward to serve.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) there are 22 million military veterans nationwide and 680,400 Michigan veterans. A 2010 DVA National Survey of Veterans shows that 68% of all veterans and 82% of post 9/11 veterans anticipate using VA health benefits.
So it’s alarming to hear reports that nearly 900,000 veterans have pending VA benefit claims, with nearly 600,000 of these claims delayed for months, sometimes years. Analyses by the Center for Investigative Reporting show the average waiting time for benefits is nine months. Amazingly most claims are yet to be computerized and Eric Shinseki, the VA Secretary, says that switching from paper to electronic files is a goal. A goal!
And now we hear about widespread Pentagon payroll errors. A recent Reuters report identifies a 40 year old computer system consistently generating mistakes that adversely affect thousands of active-duty personnel and discharged soldiers. Stories of families not having enough money to live on are painfully common.
We’ve heard various explanations ranging from budget cuts to bureaucratic and technological inefficiencies. But consider other facts about the women and men who hear the call and bear the burdens of military service. In his book Justice: What’s the right thing to do? Harvard’s Michael Sandel describes the social class composition of our all-volunteer force (AVF). Young people from families with incomes between $30,000 and $60,000 (27% of American families) are significantly overrepresented. America’s median income is $61,000. The least represented recruits are from the most affluent 20% of families (making approximately $125,000 or more per year). Only 6.5% of 18-24 year olds in AVF have ever been to college.
Clearly our military readiness heavily relies on young people from the bottom half of the country’s income distribution. Imagine if the majority of today’s veterans and soldiers had grown up in America’s most affluent families - daughters and sons of doctors, corporate executives, and political leaders. Would benefit claims and payrolls still be inefficiently processed?
So what are long-term solutions for a clear disrespect of so many veterans and soldiers? Might we benefit from a mandatory two or three year national service for all high school graduates, regardless of social class background? Other countries expect this commitment. Our national service could provide women and men in needed civilian work (e.g. social/medical services, road and construction projects, similar to the popular 1930’s Civilian Conservation Corps), as well as military recruits.
Would efficiency and respect finally govern the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Pentagon? Could national service - proposed as duty to community - allow people from various social class groups opportunities to work together for the common good? Might this help produce a desperately needed national unity? The long-term collective benefits of an American National Service far outweigh short-term disruptions of work and career plans. Perhaps the time is right.
Dwight Lang is an Ann Arbor resident and teaches in the sociology department at the University of Michigan.