Jon Soltz is a co-founder and chairman of VoteVets, a political advocacy group with over 200,000 supporters that is the largest progressive organization of veterans in the United States – and has produced some of the most effective advertising in the last several election cycles. Soltz became a commissioned U.S. Army officer in 1999 after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a graduate degree in international affairs. For four years after graduation he was stationed in Germany, and was deployed as a tank platoon leader in Kosovo from June to December 2000. In the spring of 2003, Soltz deployed to Iraq, where he served as a captain commanding logistics convoys for the First Armored Division. He took a leave from Vote Vets in 2011 for another tour in Iraq, where he was among the last American soldiers to leave that country. He was recently promoted from major to lieutenant colonel. For a special Memorial Day interview, Joe Conason spoke with him about the troubles in the Veterans Administration and America’s commitment to those who serve.
Joe Conason: How bad are the problems at the VA?
Jon Soltz: The problems at the VA have always been there. At times they’ve been worse than others. I think part of the reason we’re seeing the backlog right now is that President Obama has opened up the claims process [in the VA health care system] to a lot of people. So he made it easier for a lot of people to make claims. Under previous administrations, you used to have to fight to make a claim if you were a Vietnam veteran affected by Agent Orange, or a Gulf War veteran with Gulf War syndrome. When you have a lot of veterans coming into the system and making claims, and you [already] had a million veterans who were uninsured looking to the VA to get health insurance now, I think there’s a lot of reasons for the backlog. The question is, did anybody die of it? And we don’t know yet – we have to wait and see how the investigation unfolds.
Conason: Have you known Iraq and Afghanistan vets who ended up on long waiting lists for VA care?
Soltz: Most of the people on the waiting lists are what we call secondary claims. They’re already in the system for care. What they’re waiting on is a disability claim. They may already be 50 percent for PTSD or 30 percent for a broken arm. They’re in the system and they can get their care. What they’re waiting on is an additional disability rating to get them more care. So most of the people who are on the waiting lists aren’t necessarily not being seen – they’re just waiting to see whether they will get more disability money from the government. I don’t know anybody personally who was on a wait list and not getting care.
Conason: Do you believe that General Eric Shinseki, the VA Secretary, should resign — as some veterans groups have demanded?
Soltz: The only veterans organization making that demand is the American Legion. Nobody else has, other than the American Legion. I find that hypocritical because they supported a bill that was in the Senate – the $21 billion veterans package sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) – and it was stopped by [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-KY), yet they haven’t called for Mitch McConnell to resign. So there’s obviously a lot of partisan politics here. The issue with General Shinseki is [that] he was right about the Iraq War. It’s sort of unconscionable to fire somebody who is now trying to clean up the mess that was left by a prior administration: All of these new Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were not created by Barack Obama and his administration. When you look at the claims on the system and the role that has been played by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, I think it’s rather ironic that they’re calling for the head of General Shinseki, who has been a reformer at the VA, and has opened up the claims process to so many more veterans – I find that completely hypocritical.
Conason: What should the president and Congress do now to ensure that veterans are getting adequate health care?