MEMORIAL DAY: A time to honor their sacrifice with progress

RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., May 26, 2014 – There are at least two common traits among those whom Memorial Day is meant to honor: They pledged an oath of allegiance to defend our Nation; and they exhibited the depth of their conviction through the sacrifice of their lives. While there may not be any adequate way to demonstrate our profound gratitude, we nonetheless should try… and not just on this day of flying flags and attending brief memorial services… but rather every day that we enjoy the freedom we have purchased with their blood.

With only minor difference, every officer and enlisted member of our military begins his or her service with the following Oath: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; (along with a faithful discharge of any associated duties). So help me God.”

These Oaths have only slightly changed since the time of the Revolutionary War. However, their general intent has remained the same. Our commitment to remembering those who have paid the ultimate price on our behalf should remain as resolute.

One symbolic gesture on behalf of our Nation occurs when the President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Some might consider this to have degenerated into little more than a photo op, yet many still view it to be an appropriate display of respect and appreciation.

In recent history among former Presidents, only President Clinton has a perfect record. President George W. Bush can be excused for his only absence in 2002 as he commemorated the day at the Normandy American Cemetery in France where more than 9,000 of our military personnel are buried. Conversely, his father, President George H. W. Bush, never chose to participate in the ceremony.

Even President Ronald Reagan only attended four of the ceremonies. In fairness, he was recovering from a gunshot wound from an assassination attempt one year and in summit conferences two of the others (one in an attempt to end the Cold War with the Soviet Union).

President Obama missed the occasion in 2010 to spend the day in Chicago. He won’t make that mistake again. While his original schedule for today does not list it among his public appearances, we can expect him to surprise us with his attendance at Arlington National Cemetery as he returns from his surprise visit to Afghanistan. After all, it’s an election year.

Of course, symbolic gestures are nice, but material decisions are far more important. As our political environment has become more heated in recent years, our military personnel appear to have been disturbingly reduced to the status of pawns in the power game that is being played. Perhaps Global Warming isn’t as great a threat as the Political Scalding that is taking place. The former occurs at a relatively glacial pace, while the latter seems to occur at light speed.

Witness two current challenges: The administrative nightmare of the Veterans Administration; and the lack of a discernible foreign policy. Both of these examples have added to the count of those veterans who merit our remembrance on Memorial Day. Unfortunately, many of these deaths could have been prevented. The same can be said of those that otherwise might occur in the future.

Let’s examine the VA issue as an example.

The medical assistance element of the VA was used as a standard bearer for the efficiency and effectiveness of a single-payer healthcare system. We were told that VA hospitals were more efficient and effective than many of their counterparts in the private sector. While the effectiveness of the VA at the actual delivery of medical assistance is probably comparable to the private sector, the efficiency of the administrative aspect of the VA has now been seriously called into question.

As we now know, some administrators within the VA have been earning bonuses by inflating their performance efficiency. They have intentionally kept separate sets of books: One of patients who could be scheduled within the acceptable performance guidelines; and a second list of the patients who are actually in queue for an appointment but could not be scheduled within the required parameters. Had the administrators included all of the patients who were in the queue, their performance would have been deemed unacceptable. The unfortunate consequence is that some of the patients died while waiting to be placed on the “official” list.

How heinous is this? Try to imagine the outrage if this were to occur in any other segment of our Government.

For example: How would we respond if the Administration tried to report unemployment without including all those individuals who wanted to work but could not find jobs? What would happen if the Administration kept two sets of books: One which contained only the names of those individuals who were eligible (and filed) for unemployment compensation; and a second list of all those other individuals who actually wanted work but couldn’t find work and were ineligible for unemployment compensation? The unemployment percentage would skyrocket and those perceived to be in charge may not have been able to be re-elected. Okay, that’s a bad example.

As President Obama noted during a press conference last week, the Administration has known of the VA’s efficiency problems for a long time and has been working diligently on them. In his 2008 campaign then-Senator Obama even ran on the issue. He now boasts of how his Administration has greatly increased the funding of the VA.

This is a classic example of how our major Parties have a marked propensity to solve the wrong problem with the limited bag of tricks that lie within their Parties’ platforms. Democratic leaders like to address issues with profligate spending. When that myopic solution fails, they declare the problem to have been bigger than they initially were led to believe, and they assert they will further increase spending to resolve the issue.

Republican leaders like to address such issues with a nearly random approach to cutting costs; just pick a percentage to cut and see what happens. When this inevitably fails, they declare the problem to have been bigger than they initially were led to believe, and they assert they will further cut costs to resolve the issue.

What would happen if they honored our Veterans by actually defining the problem correctly? How can we most efficiently and effectively deliver the highest quality of health care to our Veterans without focusing on any collateral political ramifications?

For example: The VA is the second largest Department in the United States Government (second only to the Department of Defense, which serves as its feeder unit) with approximately 250,000 employees and contractors and a requested 2014 budget of $152.7 billion. While it encompasses a wide array of services, the majority of its budget is directed toward the services and infrastructure of its more than 1,700 “sites of care,” which include over 160 hospitals and 800 outpatient treatment centers.

What if that capital were deployed in a less infrastructure-intensive manner?

If the Affordable Care Act is anywhere near as “affordable” as we have been led to believe, why not simply fund the enrollment of our Veterans in an ACA Bronze Plan (with an opportunity to privately upgrade if they wished)? Then, guarantee any co-payment and deductible requirements that would otherwise be covered under VA regulations on the basis of service-connected disability.

This would expand the base of the ACA to make it more economically viable without adding any additional exposure to taxpayers. Correspondingly, the VA “sites of care” could either be liquidated or absorbed into the private sector.

This would provide a more expansive array of alternatives to our Veterans and dramatically lower the operating cost of the VA, which would inure to the taxpayers’ benefit. It would even placate the political needs of the Democratic Party by expanding the relevance of the ACA and those of the Republican Party by cutting costs within the VA while improving its efficiency.

Meanwhile, our surviving Veterans would have one less battle to fight in an attempt to save their lives; they would no longer have to fight with the VA.

Now that we’ve stimulated some thinking with respect to the VA, let’s explore how we could mitigate the real driver of Memorial Day: Our recurring insistence on intervening in the affairs of foreign nations, often without their consent. Our lack of a discernible Foreign Policy lies at the heart of the problem.

On March 20, 2012, I wrote an article for another publication entitled Foreign Policy: A Rational Approach for the U.S. The following is an excerpt from that column.

“The reality is that the Constitution doesn’t provide direct guidance with respect to foreign policy. It wasn’t until 1936 that the Supreme Court decided that the Federal Government had exclusive and plenary power over the execution of foreign affairs based on the fact that the United States is a sovereign nation. So, let’s build upon the “sovereign nation” concept.

FOREIGN POLICY:  The basis of our own Nation’s sovereignty should be a fundamental respect for the sovereignty of other nations.

“What are the consequences of that simple policy statement?

“It recognizes that the United States is not the ‘watchdog’ of the world. It is not responsible for the socio-economic and political decisions of other nations. Indeed, if we expect other nations to respect the sovereignty of the United States, we must equally honor the sovereignty of those nations.

“This is not to suggest an ‘isolationistic’ point of view but rather to pragmatically accept the limitations of our Government’s authority as well as to acknowledge its primary responsibility, which is to ‘form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense (sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.’

“When President Obama initially traveled the globe to apologize for ‘America’s arrogance,’ he wasn’t entirely wrong. If his point was to emphasize that the United States has increasingly tried to force its will on other countries, his argument had merit. Unfortunately, his actions since that time have not reflected any meaningful change of course.

“We continue to pursue fruitless ‘nation building’ initiatives (such as in Iraq and Afghanistan) that have been abject failures and cost us trillions of dollars and thousands of lives over the years. In addition, nearly $30 billion in taxpayer funds are directed toward foreign aid every year, and ironically, the preponderance of it goes to fund the military investments of a handful of predominantly hostile nations. Benjamin Franklin’s definition of insanity would seem to be apropos.

“What if all that time, money, and effort were redirected at resolving our own economic challenges rather than attempting to influence the political environments of other countries?

“What if we concentrated on reducing unemployment, poverty, and illiteracy in the United States (areas in which our performance has markedly worsened over the past few years)?

“What if we created a model of excellence that inspired other nations to look to us for guidance rather than trying to impose our ideals on them through our purported “nation building” efforts?

“That is the United States of America that I envision: a country that presents such a robust model of success that every nation aspires to learn from our model; a country that engages in the affairs of other nations upon invitation rather than by dictate.

“To accomplish this transformation, we need to do the following:

  • “Respect the sovereignty of other nations.
  • “Concentrate on fixing our problems and creating a better model for the rest of the world. 
  • “Support those nations that consistently demonstrate their support of the United States.
  • “Extend the highest level of consideration to provide such nations with any requested assistance that is in alignment with the strategies, priorities, and capabilities of the United States. 
  • “Respect the sovereignty of those nations that do not support the United States.
  • “Withdraw U.S. troops from any country that has not requested our military presence
  • “Withdraw U.S. troops from any country that has requested our military presence but has undermined our troops’ safety or effectiveness.
  • “Withdraw all foreign aid from such countries so as not to interfere with their social autonomy to truly demonstrate our respect for their sovereign right as a nation.
  • “Leave modest diplomatic channels open to facilitate communication.
  • “Request the United Nations to take a more active role with respect to world peace.
  • “Request the U.N. to take a more proactive role with respect to maintaining the peace and responding to situations that potentially require military intervention.
  • “Request the U.N. to exercise a more rational basis in the formation of its committees to maintain some semblance of credibility (as contra-examples: Sudan, which has orchestrated a genocide in Darfur, sits on the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, and Iran sits on the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women)
  • “If the U.N. ignores the requested changes, reduce the United States funding of the U.N. (currently: approximately 22% of the U.N.’s general budget and 27% of its peacekeeping force), or consider withdrawing from the U.N. and requiring the organization to move to another country.
  • “Establish equitable trade relations by mitigating regulatory and labor disparities to the degree possible to create competitive parity.
  • “Create trade agreements that establish new market opportunities for all countries involved.
  • “Respond to emerging global issues or threats in a rational way: time permitting, exhaust all diplomatic channels to resolve global issues or threats to the United States; in the event that diplomatic channels fail to resolve the issue or threat in a timely manner, pursue and impose economic and other sanctions to achieve the desired result; in the event that other countries choose to provide alternatives that allow the infringing country to circumvent such sanctions, deploy cascading sanctions against such enabling countries in a form that would offset any economic (or other) benefit that such enabling countries would otherwise derive; in the event that all other efforts fail to successfully resolve an issue in a timely manner and that such issue poses an immediate or impending threat to the United States, explore all other options (including military).

“Consistently applied, this approach would: (1) stabilize our foreign policy in a manner that is actually consistent with our Constitution; (2) work to create more of a global “equilibrium” with respect to economic and political interests; (3) shift the responsibility for “global order” to global entities (such as the U.N.); and (4) dramatically reduce the cost of our forays into the affairs of other sovereign countries. With regard to “costs,” let us not limit our awareness to the trillions of taxpayer dollars that have been spent. Let us primarily acknowledge the greater cost in human lives that has been incurred.

“We have lost the lives of roughly 6,500 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Approximately 50,000 more have been wounded and it is difficult to assess how many have returned to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In that regard, we know that more returning veterans commit suicide each year than are actually killed in combat on foreign soil.

“These are all real people. They are not just numbers to be reported at a Congressional Committee hearing or reflected upon by the President on Memorial Day, and the lives of each of these people impact the lives of an exponential number of family members and friends.

“Correspondingly, we can only guess at how significantly greater the number is in each category for the citizens of the countries which have hosted the theaters of war.

“To quote the President, ‘We can do better.’ The question becomes: ‘Then, why haven’t we?’”

On this Memorial Day, let’s offer a prayer not only on behalf of those brave individuals who lost their lives defending our freedom but also on behalf of those who will needlessly lose theirs in the future if we do not begin to make more rational decisions.


T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.

This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A Civil Assessment, in the Communities Digital News (CDN).