WASHINGTON — Ask Montel Williams about the Department of Veterans Affairs and you are likely to hear the story of Mike the Headless Chicken.
Williams is best known as a daytime talk show host, but he is building a reputation in Washington as an unlikely and fiery critic of the VA.
The White House has been getting — but not taking — his phone calls, and his online petition to fix the deeply troubled VA recently fizzled. But Williams, who served in the Marine Corps and Navy, has not been deterred and managed to elbow his way into an already crowded public debate over dangerously long patient wait times and staff misconduct.
That is where Mike the Headless Chicken comes in.
On Wednesday, Williams recounted his go-to allegory for the troubled agency while giving the keynote address at a large gathering of veteran groups.
As the story goes, a Colorado farmer chopped the head off a rooster for his family’s dinner in 1945 but the chicken did not die, that day or the next.
The farmer named it Mike and took the rooster to researchers at the University of Utah who determined the ax that took its head had left the brain stem, allowing it to continue living.
“It lived for  months without a head,” Williams said. “The chicken didn’t die because it didn’t have a head. It died because the farmer choked it when he was feeding it with an eyedropper.”
The story is meant as a lesson for managing and rooting out misconduct at the VA, which lost its secretary in May when former Army Gen. Eric Shinseki resigned but gained a new secretary when Robert McDonald was confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday.
The rooster’s head represents the department’s top post. “We’re going to chop off the head — there goes Sec. Shinseki,” Williams said.
The vast VA bureaucracy, which comprises about 400 senior executives and 300,000 employees, is Mike, still continuing on with the same dysfunction, he told the audience.
The inspector general found that about 70 percent of VA facilities falsified wait times and used the data to hand out awards and bonuses. Meanwhile, about 636,000 veterans have waited more than a month for requested treatment at about 1,700 VA facilities. It is the largest integrated health care system in the United States.
“If you can chop off the head of this organization and it can still run, it is still doing the same thing it could do four months ago today,” Williams said. “But today they are hiding it.”
Williams criticized Congress and the White House for going about “business as usual” in Washington and not working fast enough to solve the veterans’ health care crisis. Instead, Williams has floated his own plan to fix VA — he says President Barack Obama should use emergency powers to bring Navy corpsmen and other military hospital workers back on duty and open Department of Defense health care facilities to veterans.
“Every DOD hospital could be opened up tomorrow for soldiers to be walk in and be seen,” which would give a baseline measure of the access problem in the VA system, Williams said.
The former talk show host said he has been a quiet advocate for servicemembers for years, volunteering with the Fisher House Foundation and visiting the wounded at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
But the VA scandal brought him “out of the shadows,” he said.
On Wednesday, he floated the idea to the groups gathered at the forum to march on Washington for VA reform and veterans support before Americans vote in the fall.
“This country doesn’t listen unless something is big, unless it seems to be big,” he said. “Maybe we ought to all ... descend on Washington, D.C., at the same time between now and the midterm elections.”