Viewed through the media's close-up lens, this week's bureaucratic mid-course correction at the Department of Veterans Affairs looked like just another slow-mo replay of a proverbial ocean liner turning, ever so slowly, on the high sea.
But viewed through a contextual big picture prism that has monitored the VA's decades of dysfunction and injustice for those who fight our battles, watching the change happen was like witnessing that same ocean liner flipping up like a teenager's skateboard executing a 180-degree reversal and plopping back into the sea, without even making a splash.
President Obama's VA Secretary, Gen. Eric Shinseki, showed decades of top-level VA non-doers how easy it was to end decades of official inaction and unfairness. Just act. Which is to say, just care enough to act.
Shinseki issued a simple regulation declaring an end to the old rule that VA adjudicators used for decades to deny service-related benefits to tens of thousands of veterans who suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The old rule required that veterans had to provably identify a specific combat-related "stressor" incident that caused their PTSD.
But the reality of war, as psychiatrists have long maintained, is that there often isn't one single stressor that can be cited definitively as having caused a service member's PTSD -- even though the affliction is real and requires treatment. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif., said Shinseki's action "will immediately help combat veterans get the help they need."
Gen. Shinseki has never met former Army military policeman Eric Adams of Tampa, a veteran of the Gulf War and Iraq War). But the MP's case -- which I detailed in previous columns and in my 2008 book, "Vets Under Siege" -- is precisely the sort of injustice Shinseki sought to rectify this week.
The MP's missions thrust him into the horrors of war. While leading a truck convoy in Iraq, a roadside bomb exploded in front of Adams' van and a huge truck slammed into him from behind, leaving him seriously injured. On other missions, he saw colleagues blown up and burned. He also carried home the memory of a truck running over an Iraqi child (insurgents waiting in ambush sometimes sent children onto roads to make trucks stop).
Returning to Tampa in 2004, Adams was diagnosed by two VA psychiatrists as suffering from PTSD. But a VA adjudicator denied his request for service related benefits, insisting he hadn't fought in combat. When Adams appealed, demonstrating he was in combat situations; a VA adjudicator found a new reason for denying: "... although you currently are diagnosed with this mental disorder, service connection remains denied because we cannot confirm your in-service stressor." Was it seeing his buddies die? Or that Iraqi boy run over? Or the bombing or being rear-ended?
(Context: Then-Secretary Jim Nicholson immodestly hailed his VA's handling of PTSD claims: "We're dealing with it with great excellence." More excellence: His VA also rejected an Iraq War shrapnel injury benefits claim from Illinois National Guardsman Garrett Anderson with this mind-numbing adjudication: "Shrapnel wounds all over body not service connected.")
After his two VA denials, Adams said: "It was just like a slap in the face. Here I've done everything I could to serve my country in combat in two wars. And this is the response from the bureaucrats who hide behind their desks. ...They're not just letting me down, they're letting our country down when they do things like this."
Here the general and the MP are of one mind. "This nation has a solemn obligation to the men and women who have honorably served this country and suffer from the often devastating emotional wounds of war," said Shinseki, in a statement this week.
After battling America's enemies overseas, the general and the MP apparently have one more thing in common -- they are now battling an entrenched common enemy on the home front.
"I think secretary Shinseki is a soldier's soldier," said Adams. "He's determined to do a good job. But he's fighting the inbred dysfunctionalism of the bureaucracy."
Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.