Ever since the draft was suspended in 1973, our military has relied entirely on volunteers.
The nearly 1.5 million brave Americans who currently serve in our armed forces represent less than 0.4 percent of our great nation’s total population, and with recruiters struggling to maintain enlistment rates, the growing burden of protecting our country is falling on a shrinking subset of our citizenry.
Bolstering our defense will require more than reminding young Americans of why military service is so rewarding. Those considering enlistment must also know their country stands behind them not just during the time they serve, but for their entire lives.
This is why the Veterans Administration exists.
In 1930, this country created the VA to honor our commitment to America’s best and bravest. As the current secretary of the VA, I can attest that the organization is making great strides in fulfilling our duty to provide the best quality of care for the men and women who have worn the uniform.
There is presently a lot of debate on how to best provide the top-notch services these individuals deserve. But when people push for privatization of the VA, I wonder if they have actually spoken with veterans and asked them what they want.
Veterans want a VA that respects their contributions and honors the government’s commitment to provide the services they were promised.
Health care and disability benefits are among the many types of services we administer and provide to our veterans. It is our job at the VA to deliver these services effectively, efficiently and with a reverence for those who have given this nation so much.
The VA’s health care professionals understand service-related injuries and disabilities and can more easily identify and treat these specific conditions than outside practitioners. We are dedicated to improving the well-being of veterans and discovering new advancements in caregiving.
This expertise, experience and passion for treating veterans simply does not exist in the private sector.
I am, however, the first to recognize that the VA does not always get things right. It has made mistakes — and might make more — as the organization continues to make bold changes to modernize and improve the system.
For instance, we recently launched a publicly accessible website that shows wait times for every VA health care facility and lists quality comparisons to private sector facilities. This marks a new level of transparency for the VA, which is the only health care system in the country making such information readily available.
But our aspirations for the VA go well beyond reducing wait times. We refuse to settle when the well-being of our veterans is at stake.
As part of our ongoing push for improvement, I am working with the president and Congress to pass legislative reform that would result in greater organizational accountability. The VA must have the ability to hire the right people — and to fire those who let our veterans down. We also need appeals reform so our veterans can rely on getting timely and accurate decisions on their claims. Further, we need legislative support for a new Choice Program designed to give veterans access to a high-performing integrated network of providers, affording them the very best care the VA and the private sector have to offer.
Support for our veterans is not a partisan issue.
All of us can agree that those fighting for our liberties deserve the nation’s highest quality care and services. That is why I am asking for your support — no matter your politics — in helping to strengthen our mission at the VA. It’s a matter of national security.
David Shulkin is the U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs.