Nov 23

(Michael C is writing today on behalf of a group veterans who are working to fix some of the long-term problems plaguing the West LA VA Campus in Los Angeles. To learn more go to #VATheRightWay.org. Then please comment. Today is one of Michael C’s public comments he’s submitted to the Veterans Affairs department.)

A board of advisors.

Those four words could do more to improve the functioning and conditions of the West LA VA Campus than any plan ever could.

A board of advisors.

I wrote it again because I just like the sound of it. But really, having boards with established oversight over public institutions is a time-tested way to improve the function of government. The University of California is overseen by a board of regents. Publicly traded companies have boards of directors. Communities have established school boards and police advisory boards. Simply put, when a community wants a voice at the table over how any organization works--from a school system to police to companies--they establish independent boards with oversight authority.

A board of advisors.

The VA Campus has shown that it needs this oversight. The litany of issues that were settled in the current lawsuit all stem from not having this crucial oversight. Contracts with private companies that don’t benefit the veterans of LA? Those wouldn’t happen (or would be severely curtailed) with a board providing independent oversight. Long term leases that don’t contribute to veteran health or welfare? Those wouldn’t happen with a board providing independent oversight. A lack of housing to serve the different needs of homeless or housing-insecure veterans at the West LA VA Campus? Again, that wouldn’t happen with a board providing independent oversight.

A board of advisors.

Really, the board isn’t about fixing the current issues. In many ways, the proposed plan will solve some of the current issues, like a lack of housing for veterans and ending inappropriate extended use leases). But in ten years? Or twenty years? Or beyond? Can any plan on paper fix those issues? They can’t. Unless the VA establishes a process to ensure that the land upon which the West LA VA Campus sits is properly managed for the benefit of veterans. So that’s what I recommend...

A board of advisors.

Because whoever the VA puts in charge of running the facility won’t have the best interests of our community; he’ll want to advance his career in the VA. He or she will answer to their bosses. We need to eliminate this incentive. We need to eliminate any opportunities for waste, fraud and abuse. We need independent oversight.

A board of advisors.

Here is my proposal. (Though, any board of oversight would be better than none, even if it doesn’t follow my exact plan.) The board should consist of 7 to 9 appointed individuals. The individuals should be appointed by different stakeholders including the VA, veteran’s groups, the mayor’s office and possibly the governor’s office. The board should have a minimum of 33% veteran membership and positions should be held for a four year term. The board should have a minimal budget, but should have enough funds to conduct independent investigations and audits.

The board’s purview should include approving any land management issues. This includes approving extended use and short term leases, new housing and construction and land management decisions. The board should provide advice on any veteran issues in general, from quality of care to other issues. The board can’t control how the VA operates. That would require fixing Washington and no board in L.A. can do that. But the board can provide a voice and manage the use of the land.

And really, that is what veterans are asking for here. A voice. A seat at the table. It is the only way we can fix the long term issues plaguing the VA.

Nov 17

The country celebrated Veterans Day last week, and for many well-meaning friends and family, it was a chance to thank me for serving in the Army. Like many soldiers, I’ve struggled with how to react to “Thank you for your service.” I never know what to say; I don’t quite know the best response to someone showing me gratitude for something I did voluntarily.

I’m not the only veteran with who struggles with “Thank you for your service”. Other veterans have have similar troubles, or incongruous reaction, when faced with the expression of gratitude from strangers. Some veterans feel uncomfortable with this response. Others just don’t know what to say.

This being On Violence, I also have a slightly darker take. By thanking a soldier for their service, or in some cases even shipping care packages or putting a sticker on your car, many Americans can avoid making tougher sacrifices during war. (I would also say that many of the the links above get at this feeling without bluntly saying it.)

By thanking a veteran for his or her service, by saying those words, you let yourself off the hook for any other action that could meaningfully help veterans. And I believe people thanking veterans do it with the best of intentions...but if it ends at “Thanks”, then we haven’t really moved the needle. (Obviously, this doesn’t apply to everyone.) Think of it this way: it is one thing to thank your wife for making dinner; it is another to do the dishes afterwards.

So, in honor of Veterans Day last week, here’s a great way you can move the needle and provide meaningful change:

Comment on the VA plan to renovate the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Campus (West LA VA Campus for short).

In news to me, the West LA VA Campus is not actually VA property. It was deeded to the veterans of Los Angeles county. While this seems like a local issue, it is really about the future of how the VA serves veterans nationwide.

The background. A few years back, a class action lawsuit was filed by Los Angeles veterans against the VA for misuse of the campus and property. The key issue is that (roughly) the land was donated to veterans not to the Veteran’s Affairs Department. The main issue was that extended leases on the property benefitted either the rich (Brentwood residents), powerful (students at the Brentwood school) or or influential (UCLA), without benefiting or even helping veterans. In 2015, Secretary of the VA Bob McDonald signed a settlement agreement that formed a non-profit group, Vets Advocacy, to address the issues on the West LA Campus.

Fast forward to 23 days ago, when the Veteran’s Affairs Department revealed their plans to update the campus and fix the issues. Of course, the government doesn’t do things simply (their plan is 900 pages long) or conveniently (so they only allowed 45 days of public comment), and now local veteran leaders are trying to spread the word. These leaders (from several groups I am a part of including the Veterans in Film and Television Los Angeles and others) want veterans to read the plan and a different plan written by Vets Advocacy.

So take a moment and spread the word about the #VATheRightWay. Comment on the plan, especially if you are a veteran. Learn about the issue. And again, spread the word.

That’s how you thank a veteran.