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Jewish World Review Nov. 12, 1999 /3 Kislev, 5760

Michelle Malkin

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A monumental waste of
our veterans' resources -- Perry Point, Md. - Let me take you on a quick tour. We enter the sprawling campus of the Perry Point Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Rolling hills and dusty roads lie ahead. To our right is a panoramic view of the Chesapeake Bay. Waves break against the rocky shore. A groundhog waddles beneath a leafy oak.

Around the bend is a spiffy firehouse. The administrative offices are majestic; the director's home is a colonial estate. New, multi-million-dollar construction projects gleam in the autumn sun. And then we reach the nursing home.

It is one of the shabbiest buildings in sight. The paint is flaking. The windows are musty. An aged veteran sits alone on the porch in a thin, plaid robe. His face is drawn and his eyes are somber. We wave as our car rolls by. He shrinks, hesistates, and then finally waves back with a grimace.

Taking care of the nation's war veterans is an obligation that has existed since the days of the Continental Congress. It is a right and honorable tradition. Why can't the federal government at least give the impression that it has its priorities straight? Is it too much to ask to clean the windows where the battle-worn live their last days? We finish the driving tour - only a small portion of the nearly 500-acre estate is publicly accessible - with an unshakeable feeling of melancholy.

A few hours south of Perry Point, the head of the VA system in Washington, D.C. is living la dolce vita. The agency's inspector general reported last month that VA Secretary Togo West Jr. had ignored federal rules requiring government employees to take cost-saving commercial flights - and instead helped himself to tax-subsidized military aircraft on two trips to Alaska and Louisiana last year.

That's not all. In another flagrant indulgence, the report said a 1998 dinner West gave at his home for then-Navy Secretary John Dalton and his wife "fueled the perception of waste." The tab: $283 a plate for 31 guests - a total of $9,340. West brought in the U.S. Army Band and also charged taxpayers $375 for a plaque awarded to Dalton's wife.

West's defenders may complain that his expenses were petty. VA bureaucrats may grumble that they are unfairly singled out for anecdotal tales of waste, fraud, and abuse. But petty waste on plaques and parties is money not spent improving veterans' care. The nickles and dimes add up to a $17 billion-dollar agency that rots from the head down.

The VA's government-run system of hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes, which serve approximately 2.7 million of the nation's 26 million veterans, is clogged with bureaucratic excess. Thirty-one VA facilities, such as Perry Point, have their own federally-funded fire departments. Others boast golf courses, aquariums, and lavish estates. Meanwhile, the shoddy care provided by the VA is infamous - and costly.

Four years ago, a federal judge awarded $4.5 million to a disabled vet who was maltreated at three different VA hospitals - including Perry Point. According to the Rocky Mountain News, disabled vet John Deasy suffers from a rare tissue disease that causes psychiatric symptoms. When Deasy complained of neglect and malpractice, the judge wrote, the doctors "attributed his views to delusions and tried to drug them out of his mind."

Similar complaints have been made this summer in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where one VA doctor who sided with patients' complaints about substandard treatment was punished for his whistle-blowing activities.

In a damnable demonstration of its priorities, the VA takes far better care of its administrative buildings and vacant hospitals than its patients. A recent investigation by the independent General Accounting Office found that the agency spends more than $1 million a day to sustain unneeded hospital buildings. Another $35 million is spent annually to perform upkeep on empty space, including unused lots and warehouses.

Douglas McArthur, head of the New Mexico-based National Veterans Organization, says VA officials "have created the damndest country club in America. Whatever toys they want, they get. Nobody is watching what they spend these millions of dollars on, and obviously, no one cares."

Both Republicans and Democrats will point to increased VA budget appropriations this fall as a sign of their allegiance to those who served and sacrificed for our country.

This is not patriotism. It's profligacy.

JWR contributor Michelle Malkin can be reached by clicking here.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate