Camilo Mejía

Is the Obama Administration Quietly Turning Veterans' Health Care Into a Business Venture?

On August 7, President Obama signed into law the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014. The week prior to that the U.S. Senate appointed Robert McDonald as the new VA secretary.
Am I crazy or are these two events clear signals of the privatization of the Veterans Administration and veterans’ care?
Let’s see…
The VA access bill contains $16.3 billion alleged to improve veterans’ access to and quality of medical care. Approximately $5 billion is designated to hire new doctors and nurses at nearly 1000 hospitals and other medical facilities throughout the United States; $2 billion to lease (not build) new medical facilities; and $10 billion for a program allowing veterans to seek outside help if they have waited 30 or more days for care or if they live farther than 40 miles from a VA facility. The bill also gives the new VA secretary unprecedented power to fire personnel, allowing for an appeals’ window of only one week.
As far as the new secretary, Bob McDonald, I doubt his credentials could have possibly been more business oriented. After serving only 5 years in the military, and having no experience whatsoever in healthcare, Secretary McDonald moved on to build a profitable career in corporate America. He served for four years as CEO of Procter and Gamble (P&G), a giant consumer goods multinational company. During his tenure, McDonald’s signature was to downsize the company (he downsized 10% of the company’s personnel!). McDonald earned an estimated $15.9 million on his final year as P&G’s CEO, before being asked to leave by the company’s board, which claimed the company was not moving fast enough to improve efficiency.
One of McDonald’s main critics was Bill Ackman, a hedge fund investor who said McDonald served on the board of too many organizations to be able to really focus on P&G those boards presently include Xerox Corporation and U.S. Steel. McDonald also serves as an advisor for several other groups.
While his credentials are mostly about business, the new VA secretary is no stranger to politics. He was appointed by President George W. Bush, and later re-appointed by President Barak Obama, to serve on the U.S. government’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy. And the new secretary’s political loyalty is no secret to anyone; according to the Federal Election Commission records, McDonald has made political campaign contributions in excess of $30,000 to the Republican Party, with half of the contributions going to Mitt Romney’s campaign. He has also contributed to House Speaker John Boehner, who applauded his appointment and called him the right man for the job. The Senate appointed McDonald with a vote of 97-0.
My reading of this bill and appointment is that our government’s response to the veterans’ care crisis is to outsource health treatment to the private sector. Not only is most of the money going to outside personnel and facilities, but the new Chief Executive Secretary has been empowered to fire existing personnel with hardly any appeal’s recourse. And while all this money is going into the hands of a corporate America Republican darling with no healthcare experience and minimal military service, no one in Congress is speaking about the huge conflict of interest that his several corporate connections will present when handing out billions of dollars to outside private entities and personnel, with near absolute power to fire existing employees and hardly any funds to build new VA facilities.
It is time for the U.S. government to start facing the real crisis in the health care and wellbeing of veterans, which unequivocally points to a mentality and addiction to prevailing war-for-profit policies. Sadly, it seems that rather than learning from this crisis, Washington has decided to turn it into an opportunity to turn the VA into another business venture. Sadder still is that no one in Congress, or in the public at large, is doing or saying anything about it.

Regaining My Humanity

In March 2004, 28-year-old Sgt. Camilo Mejia turned himself in to the U.S. military and filed an application for conscientious objector status. On May 21, he was sentenced to one year in prison for refusing to return to fight in Iraq. He was released from prison on Feb. 15, 2005.

I was deployed to Iraq in April 2003 and returned home for a two-week leave in October. Going home gave me the opportunity to put my thoughts in order and to listen to what my conscience had to say. People would ask me about my war experiences and answering them took me back to all the horrors – the firefights, the ambushes, the time I saw a young Iraqi dragged by his shoulders through a pool of his own blood or an innocent man decapitated by our machine-gun fire. The time I saw a soldier broken down inside because he killed a child, or an old man on his knees, crying with his arms raised to the sky, perhaps asking God why we had taken the lifeless body of his son.

I thought of the suffering of a people whose country was in ruins and who were further humiliated by the raids, patrols and curfews of an occupying army.

And I realized that none of the reasons we were told about why we were in Iraq turned out to be true. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There was no link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. We weren't helping the Iraqi people and the Iraqi people didn't want us there. We weren't preventing terrorism or making Americans safer. I couldn't find a single good reason for having been there, for having shot at people and been shot at.

Coming home gave me the clarity to see the line between military duty and moral obligation. I realized that I was part of a war that I believed was immoral and criminal, a war of aggression, a war of imperial domination. I realized that acting upon my principles became incompatible with my role in the military, and I decided that I could not return to Iraq.

By putting my weapon down, I chose to reassert myself as a human being. I have not deserted the military nor been disloyal to the men and women of the military. I have not been disloyal to a country. I have only been loyal to my principles.

When I turned myself in, with all my fears and doubts, it did it not only for myself. I did it for the people of Iraq, even for those who fired upon me – they were just on the other side of a battleground where war itself was the only enemy. I did it for the Iraqi children, who are victims of mines and depleted uranium. I did it for the thousands of unknown civilians killed in war. My time in prison is a small price compared to the price Iraqis and Americans have paid with their lives. Mine is a small price compared to the price humanity has paid for war.

Many have called me a coward, others have called me a hero. I believe I can be found somewhere in the middle. To those who have called me a hero, I say that I don't believe in heroes, but I believe that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

To those who have called me a coward I say that they are wrong, and that without knowing it, they are also right. They are wrong when they think that I left the war for fear of being killed. I admit that fear was there, but there was also the fear of killing innocent people, the fear of putting myself in a position where to survive means to kill, there was the fear of losing my soul in the process of saving my body, the fear of losing myself to my daughter, to the people who love me, to the man I used to be, the man I wanted to be. I was afraid of waking up one morning to realize my humanity had abandoned me.

I say without any pride that I did my job as a soldier. I commanded an infantry squad in combat and we never failed to accomplish our mission. But those who called me a coward, without knowing it, are also right. I was a coward not for leaving the war, but for having been a part of it in the first place. Refusing and resisting this war was my moral duty, a moral duty that called me to take a principled action. I failed to fulfill my moral duty as a human being and instead I chose to fulfill my duty as a soldier. All because I was afraid. I was terrified; I did not want to stand up to the government and the army – I was afraid of punishment and humiliation. I went to war because at the moment I was a coward, and for that I apologize to my soldiers for not being the type of leader I should have been.

I also apologize to the Iraqi people. To them I say I am sorry for the curfews, for the raids, for the killings. May they find it in their hearts to forgive me.

One of the reasons I did not refuse the war from the beginning was that I was afraid of losing my freedom. Today, as I sit behind bars I realize that there are many types of freedom, and that in spite of my confinement I remain free in many important ways. What good is freedom if we are afraid to follow our conscience? What good is freedom if we are not able to live with our own actions? I am confined to a prison but I feel, today more than ever, connected to all humanity. Behind these bars I sit a free man because I listened to a higher power, the voice of my conscience.
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