WASHINGTON — As the federal government struggles with problems at the Veterans Administration amid thousands returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it does so with a Congress that has only a fourth of the number of veterans it had after Vietnam.
Currently, about 20 percent of representatives or senators have served in the military, according to numbers compiled by the House Armed Services Committee and the American Legion. In 1976, Legion records show, 77 percent were veterans.
How this diminishing connection will affect the care that the nation provides its veterans in coming decades is unknowable on this Memorial Day. But there is general consensus that treatment of veterans has become one of the few bipartisan issues in a badly divided Congress, in part because of lessons learned after the Vietnam War.
That’s why the VA scandal, which includes allegations that some people died while on patient waiting lists, has inflamed national news headlines for weeks.
Some point out that the Veterans Administration budget has been one of the few areas where federal spending has risen significantly — it has roughly doubled since 2007 — even as the number of veterans in Congress has fallen to a post-Vietnam low.
“We reflect in Congress how America feels: that we must keep our word” to provide health care, education and employment help to veterans, said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Like the rest of the Missouri delegation in Congress, McCaskill, the daughter of a World War II veteran, did not serve in the military.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., pointed out that Congress is keeping the Defense Department budget under sequestration spending limits but exempted the Veterans Administration.
“Just to speak in the plainest political terms, even families without current veterans still value what veterans have done for our country, and they expect us as elected officials to feel the same way,” said Durbin, who is not a veteran. His Illinois seatmate, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, was a Naval intelligence officer.
Some returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan say there is no replacement for having served when trying to understand the challenges and experiences that military personnel carry with them from deployment through their post-service years.
“As far as being policy experts, vets and nonvets are well-versed,” said Nick McCormick, legislative associate at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who served in Iraq as an Army sergeant in 2008 and 2009.
“Whether or not a member of Congress is a veteran doesn’t affect their desire to address a problem, but their intimate knowledge of experience with deploying is really a key factor,” he said. “Unless you have done it, it is very hard to convey just how difficult that time of life can be for a service member or family member.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he thinks that some nonveterans in Congress, even if they lack that personal experience, sometimes push the hardest for veterans’ causes.
“You do have a different reflection of veterans in society than you would have had in 1980, and while the Congress is reflective of that change I don’t think it diminishes the desire of the Congress to provide the benefits to our veterans,” he said.
The drop in veterans in Congress comes as the Veterans Administration has also been rocked by whistleblower allegations of poor service at VA facilities around the country, including St. Louis. President Barack Obama promised to investigate the allegations, which include claims that some veterans died while waiting to get service in Phoenix, and to punish those responsible.
Obama, who had been criticized for being too slow and too passive in his response, said the country has “a sacred trust” to respond to veterans’ needs.
“So when I hear allegations of misconduct — any misconduct — whether it’s allegations of VA staff covering up long wait times or cooking the books, I will not stand for it,” he said. “Not as Commander-in-Chief, but also as an American.”
The dwindling number of vets is one of the biggest changes in Congress over the last 40 years — a direct reflection of the end of the draft in 1973 and the resulting smaller percentage of veterans in the general population.
As Veterans of Foreign Wars Public Affairs Director Joe Davis points out, 16 million Americans served in World War II, more than 12 percent of the nation’s population of 132 million the year before the country entered the war.
Less than 1 percent of the current population of 317 million served in Iraq or Afghanistan, Davis said.
“You can make the argument that veterans are overrepresented” in Congress,” said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, a graduate of West Point who served 28 years in the Army and Army reserves, retiring in 2008 as a lieutenant colonel.
Shimkus said that World War II veterans “were just everywhere” when he first came to Congress in 1997. At that time, there were about twice as many veterans in Congress as there are today. Still, he said, “I have been very gratified by the public response to our returning veterans,” which he said makes it paramount to fix the problems at the VA.
“We have some very, very hard-working, honorable federal employees” in veterans health care, he said, “but we still have the fact that it is still a huge, large bureaucracy, and there are cases of malfeasance and neglect.”
The congressional peak for veterans came right after Vietnam. In 1977, according to numbers compiled by the American Legion, 347 of 435 members of the House and 65 of 100 senators were veterans. The number of Senate veterans peaked at 73 in 1981.
In the Congress sworn in to office in January 2013, there were 19 senators who were veterans, and 89 House members, including roughly two dozen who have served since the 9/11 attacks, according to data compiled by the House Armed Services Committee and the American Legion. Veterans groups expect that latter number to rise in coming years.
But during the current session of Congress, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., the last remaining World War II veteran in the Senate, died. Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., who served in the Army National Guard, also died in office.
The World War II generation, which infused Congress on both sides of the political aisle with war heroes such as John F. Kennedy, George McGovern and Bob Dole, is about to fade from the Capitol. With Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., retiring after this term, the only World War II veteran seeking re-election is 91-year-old Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas. And Hall faces a primary runoff challenge on Tuesday.
McCaskill said the growth of the Veterans Administration budget is proof that a Congress predominantly of nonveterans is cognizant of veterans’ needs. Obama’s 2015 VA budget request is $163.9 billion.
Besides dealing with aging populations from previous wars, McCaskill also said the VA has been buffeted by decisions by Shinseki to add conditions such as heart disease, Parkinson’s and leukemia as coverable under VA benefits because of exposure to Agent Orange during Vietnam. That was the right thing to do, but it considerably increased patient loads, said McCaskill, whose office has conducted annual satisfaction surveys of veterans using VA services.
She said Congress for many years had treated veterans programs “on the cheap,” and that conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder had not been recognized. Her counterpart in the Senate, Blunt, has pushed legislation expanding mental health treatment for veterans, an area that he said is a critical need going forward.
Durbin, after meeting with embattled VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last week, said that “half of the returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are working their way through the disability system. We have never seen that before.”
Those ongoing problems give the veterans’ family members a military connection, even though the percentage of those who served is relatively small.
George Newell, 72 and a retired teacher and Vietnam veteran from St. Peters, is active in veterans’ causes. He said that most politicians, local and national, “have somebody in their family that served or they have a friend or neighbor that served, and they understand what is going on in our society now.
“Less than 1 percent are serving in our military today, and as far as I am concerned ... they deserve to be treated like kings and queens, because they are doing the job no one else wants to do,” he said.
Davis, the VFW public affairs director, served in the Air Force during the first Gulf War. He credits the Vietnam generation that preceded him for creating an atmosphere in which it’s easier to make the case for veterans.
“During Vietnam, America couldn’t disassociate the politics of war from the warrior fighting the war,” Davis said.
“So Vietnam veterans healed themselves,” he said, referring to the Vietnam Memorial, which he described as a monument “to never again let the service and sacrifice of another generation of warriors be forgotten, go unrecognized or go unappreciated.
“That is what the Vietnam generation has paid forward to the America of today,” Davis added. “Whether they protested against the war or fought in Vietnam, it’s because of the Vietnam generation that America now knows how to separate the politics of war from the warrior fighting it.”