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Saturday, December 3, 2016

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) picked an incredibly inopportune time to bungle his political attack against the Department of Veterans Affairs, when he lashed out at veterans organizations over Memorial Day weekend. In an “Open Letter to America’s Veterans,” Burr demonstrated a distinct lack of respect for military veterans, choosing not to thank them for their service, but rather to criticize their failure to conform to his opinion.

For the past several weeks, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has faced mounting criticism over the VA’s treatment of former service men and women, and their access to health care. Following accusations of poor management, forged records, and other cover-ups, both Shinseki and President Obama have vowed to right the wrongs. The GOP, predictably, has seized upon the controversy as another opportunity to hype a political scandal — only this time, Burr managed to create a scandal of his own.

In his open letter, Burr ripped veterans service organizations (VSOs) that have not echoed his call for Shinseki’s resignation, saying that they are “more interested in defending the status quo within VA, protecting their relationships within the agency, and securing their access to the Secretary and his inner circle” than in helping their own members. To say that Burr’s letter backfired would be an understatement.  Three major veterans groups — Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Disabled American Veterans — responded furiously to the senator’s shortsighted attack.

“Senator Burr may be enamored with the idea that all of VA’s problems and challenges can be overcome by replacing one Secretary, but the plain facts and simple logic indicate otherwise,” Disabled American Veterans said in a statement on its website. Indeed, some members of Burr’s own party are not entirely onboard with his one-step solution; House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL), and numerous other Republicans have not called for Shinseki’s resignation.

DVA went on to add, “Senator Burr shows no interest in pursuing serious policy solutions, preferring instead to launch cheap political attacks on the integrity of leaders of veterans organizations that do not agree with him.” While these statements may seem like a harsh blow, responses from Veterans of Foreign Wars and Paralyzed Veterans of American made this reply seem kind in comparison.

Veterans of Foreign Wars called Burr’s letter a “monumental cheap shot,” and bristled at his suggestion that the dedicated individuals at VFW did not care about their members. Comparing their tireless and constant efforts to help veterans to Burr’s “exorbitant amount of days off,” VFW scoffed at the notion that Burr feels entitled to question the principles of men and women who have “walk[ed] the walk.”

Sparing no feelings, VFW added that Burr’s letter was one of the most “dishonorable and grossly inappropriate acts that we’ve witnessed in more than forty years of involvement with the veteran community,” and branded Burr’s accusations as “ugly and mean-spirited in every sense of the words and profoundly wrong, both logically and morally.”

In a particularly acidic conclusion, VFW wrote,

If we’ve been remiss in anything, Senator, we’ve been remiss in being too polite with Congress…We will not stand by and let our members be distracted by rhetoric or finger-pointing and we certainly won’t abide our veterans being used as political footballs. And you can be sure that we will let our membership know the low regard you hold for their organization.

Paralyzed Veterans of America had a similarly infuriated message for Burr, saying that he clearly represented “the worst of politics in this country.” Burr’s letter, the organization said, “displays why the vast majority of the American public puts no faith in their elected officials to do what is right for this country.” Paralyzed Veterans of America also neatly demonstrated the hypocrisy in Burr’s accusations, noting that Burr was “not actually present during the testimony that the VSO representatives provided” and “did not ask a single question…about how to fix the problems the VA health care system” faces.

While most reasonable human beings — especially those whose jobs depend on keeping voters happy — would take such criticism as a sign of an enormously offensive mistake and apologize, Burr did no such thing. The North Carolina Republican refused to retract his letter or its sentiments, or to issue an apology. Instead, Burr zeroed in on the responses as further proof of the misplaced priorities of the VSOs, saying, “I think they’ve shown more outrage toward my open letter than outrage toward the current crisis at the VA.”

For good reason, Senator Burr.

 Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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