Reworking the Veteran’s Administration from the Ground Up: Revisiting Title 38


2014-05-21 By Bill Jayne

Two generations of pundits and opinion leaders who never met a military veteran have confidently dusted off clichés about the WWII G.I. Bill and used that legislation as an example of how well government can work to solve large-scale cultural dilemmas; such as “What on earth can we do with all these guys coming back into the civilian sector all at once?”

Yet, the system of veterans benefits that took root 70 years ago was primarily intended to accomplish two goals: shore up the morale of those fighting the war as casualties increased exponentially in the terrible days of Normandy, the Bulge, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and, secondly, solve the problem of millions of demobilized military men by sending them to school.

The G.I. Bill did its part to help millions of veterans become productive citizens but the support of all sectors of a unified nation most likely had more to do with the successful reintegration of WWII’s warriors than the law that became Title 38 of the U.S. Code.

Title 38 has become so corrupted that it should be obvious that the only remedy is to start over again.
Title 38 has become so corrupted that it should be obvious that the only remedy is to start over again.

The stove-piped Veterans Affairs (VA) system of direct benefits such as disability compensation in one bureaucratic pile and medical benefits in another heap never focuses on the needs of the veteran in a holistic way.  The entire program is an adversarial system in which the veteran is always the defendant, the accused.

That is especially true with regard to disability benefits but it’s also true on the medical side of the river as well.  That judgment might not have been so cogent in the immediate aftermath of WWII when the country was remarkably unified in its support for the G.I., but even then the seeds of today’s mess were evident. Look at the plight of POW’s of the Japanese whose claims for disabilities caused by nutritional diseases like rickets, etc., were denied for a generation because they had “no documentation” (we destroyed whatever documentation might have existed in the bombing campaign).  The plight of “atomic veterans” was also another harbinger of things to come.

Today, Title 38 has become so corrupted by mismanagement, strata of legislative tinkering encrusted layer upon layer, juridical rules, and plain fraud, waste and abuse–not to mention the incredible complexity of today’s medical industry–that it should be obvious that the only remedy is to toss Title 38 in the latrine and start over again.  

The only system that will actually help address veterans’ problems is one that is not adversarial.  Congress needs to charge DOD and VA with the affirmative responsibility to help the veteran instead of making the veteran apply for benefits in an adversarial system.

I don’t think we can hope to fix VA until Title 38 is cut down, rooted out and eradicated like a noxious weed.

Bill Jayne was a US Marine wounded at Khe Sanh who returning from Vietnam and completed a very distinguished career at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

He takes a bold visionary stand in putting everything connected to the original enabling legislation of the VA and then Department of Veterans, US Title 38,on the table.

America must engage in an important and necessary national debate on how to best serve America’s Veterans.

Editor’s Note: Because of colleague Ed Timperlake’s intimate involvement with Veterans Affairs starting in the Reagan Administration, Ed has allowed Second Line of Defense to focus on the crisis which has been evident for more than two years.

We have published several pieces on our companion website, Second Line of Defense Forum and encourage our readers to take a look at those articles as well.

Earlier Ed wrote a piece, which demonstrates that the VA does not have to operate like it currently is doing as the scandal deepens.

Working with Secretary Ed Derwinski at the Veterans Affairs department, I learned from him a very profound Washington lesson: “win some, lose some.” I first became aware of what is now known as Gulf War Illness through a phone call from a retired Navy commander who was very concerned about his son, an active duty Marine, a rifleman in Desert Storm recently returned from Iraq. The commander said his son had become extremely sick. His symptoms – teeth and hair falling out, weakness and significant weight loss – were attributed by his father to service in the war. Additionally, the dad said his son was afraid to go to sick call because the military was downsizing and he did not want to leave the Marines. There was a problem, and I went to the Secretary.

While at the VA and to this day, Secretary Derwinski has never received due credit for his resolution of the most contentious medical issue lingering from Vietnam, Agent Orange. In spite of White House questioning, in 1989 he stopped the government fighting a lawsuit, thus creating a credible medical adjudication process in favor of the Vietnam veteran. When the issue of Gulf War Illness reached his office, he was ready to move quickly and diligently to do what ever necessary to avoid another Agent Orange debacle.

I was told to find out from Department of Defense exactly what they knew about the cause or causes of the illness. I teamed up with a very responsible VA team of physicians to address the issue. We at VA would begin to establish a registry of patients, treat the symptoms and seek the cause. Our team began at different levels and branches of the government and private sector, all trying to acquire information. We believed our strongest partner for information was the Department of Defense.

However, at the critical point when credibility was all, the Department of Defense dissembled. I personally was told that the sickness might simply be stress related, or from the bite of a sand flea, or from drinking water that had come in contact with oil. When asked if chemical or biological agents were suspected, DoD answered that there was no evidence of any troops being exposed to chemical and biological agents. What about a report the Czechs found evidence of chemical weapons being used? Well, you know how their equipment is, and isn’t it interesting that part-time guard and reserve service members seem to be complaining more. it was the classic canard of blaming the victim.

The Department of Defense delay in revealing all that officials knew caused our physicians and epidemiologists to lose their most precious commodity, time. “Win some, lose some.” After Mr. Derwinski, for reasons other than Gulf War Illness, left the VA (a very shameful episode in the Bush administration), Acting Secretary Tony Principi, a Vietnam Veteran, picked up right where he left off, still pressing for answers. After the 1992 election, Secretary Jesse Brown, a world class veteran’s advocate, continued seeking the truth. He performed admirably and kept the integrity of the VA’s response totally credible.

It must be noted that the true credit for the Clinton administration’s forcing DoD to get to the bottom of what happened is simply President Clinton. Defense now admits our troops were exposed to toxic agents, and the issue has the highest priority. Press reports have indicated that the president and first lady have been personally engaged and committed to helping Desert Storm veterans. Mr. Clinton can point with pride to his efforts.

This time, veterans won one. But Americans should note well: DoD should be ashamed. Officials there let one of the greatest military actions in this country’s history be clouded because of how they treated their warriors. They should never lose one.

The Washington Times

January 6, 1998

Edward Timperlake is former assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs.