Joe's Take: Aunt Tess and the Veterans Administration

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Aunt Tess had watched the National Memorial Day concert on television and she wasn’t happy.

“What?” I asked. “You didn’t like the music?”

“Oh, the music’s okay, except every year the singers get younger. That one girl couldn’t have been 16 yet and they had her singing that sad song about how her heart would go on. How would she know? Cripes, when we were 16 we didn’t know enough about life to be sad. Besides, I want more drums and bugles and trumpets when they do these things. More John Phillip Sousa. My brothers liked that get-up-and-go stuff and they were the guys doing the fighting, not some Hollywood wanna-be! But that’s not what I’m mad about.”

“Well, if it’s not the music,” I asked, “what was it?” She was still steamed when I took her to lunch in Cape May next day to celebrate the beginning of the summer season. She had seen all nine of her older brothers go off to fight against the Nazis and the Japanese before she had lied about her own age at 17 to get into the Women’s Army Corps. After the war she became a diehard member and secretary of her Teamster’s local; the regional manager of the cash count for a big supermarket chain, and the second wife of a widowed Philadelphia cop raising his two kids. She was not, as Churchill would have said, made of cotton candy.

“It’s this thing at the VA that gets my goat,” she fumed. “Here they’ve got all these veterans in wheelchairs missing their arms and legs, everybody singing and waving flags and crying crocodile tears about how brave they are, and not a word, not a single word at that concert, about the mess at the VA! What they should do is resign in disgrace!”

“Who? The guys in wheelchairs?” I’ve grown more daring with the old dear over the years and now and then give her a poke to keep her Irish stirred up. She hasn’t mellowed much.

“Not the guys in wheelchairs, smarty pants. The guys in Washington that let this happen. I know he’s a wounded vet himself, but that General Shinseki’s the sorriest looking excuse for a leader I ever saw. He always looks like he’s ready to burst out in tears. Why he needs to wait for an investigation tell him who to fire is beyond me. That’s not leadership!  Even with all his staff, Ike didn’t let a committee decide for him whether to give the final order for the invasion when the weather was shaky, and FDR didn’t need to wait for the newspapers to tell him to get going on building factories before the war.”

“And your guy Obama should hang his head in shame!” she kept going. “I know the doctors and nurses do a good job there, but if Harry Truman was around  there wouldn’t be anybody else in the VA above the rank of file clerk still drawing pay!”

“Yeah, the Republicans in Congress are demanding he should fire Eric Shinseki as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs immediately, if not sooner,” I said.

“They’re not much to brag about either,” she snorted. “They wrap the flag around themselves and blather about how much they love our soldiers, but they never vote enough money to take care of them when they come home all shot up. You ask me, that whole congress should be put out to pasture.”

She was right about that, and even more right about Harry Truman. He’d been the president who appointed a guy named Dr. Paul B. Magnuson to be Chief Medical Director of the VA in 1948, when the flood of World War II vets hit the system. Magnuson is a good example of how leadership matters in places like the VA. A top orthopedic surgeon in Chicago, he had worked his way through medical school as a boxer, then gone to work as a railroad doctor, handling cases where workers got caught in the sort of grisly accident you get when two railroad cars clank together with a yard worker caught between. With the help of a cabinet-making carpenter he figured out that joining fractured bones by clever cabinet-type joinery that wouldn’t be rejected by the bones was better than the old metal pins and bolts approach and fought successfully to have that approach win medical recognition

At the VA he fought short-sighted congressmen from the sticks who insisted they should have a VA hospital in their district, no matter how far that left the patients from the best medical care. He placed his hospitals near medical schools as “teaching hospitals,” staffed by the best surgeons. Truman, himself a World War I combat veteran, backed him to the hilt. You can read all that in Magnuson’s autobiography “Ring the Night Bell: An American Surgeon’s Story,” a classic in its genre. 

Joe Wilkins Joe Wilkins

Joe Wilkins is an author, semiretired lawyer and former municipal judge who lives in Smithville. You can email him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , see his website at , or follow him on Twitter @jtwilkins001.

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