The Life and Death of the Veteran Advocate

Over the last 200 years, vets built unrivaled political power in Washington. What happens when it all slips away?

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To many of the aging officials inside Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), Kristofer Goldsmith represented the future.

A bearded, telegenic, post-9/11 veteran with sharp political instincts, strong policy chops, and a Twitter-famous dog named Frosting, Goldsmith injected some much-needed vim and vigor into the seasoned organization.

In his four years at VVA, Goldsmith cracked open the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to former service members like himself with so-called “bad paper” discharges. He also helped pass the Forever G.I. Bill, pushed back on VA privatization efforts, and spent months down an Internet rabbit hole investigating Russian trolls targeting those who served.

Then, this summer, as Goldsmith was wrapping up a detailed report on racial inequities in VA healthcare, he and 12 other staffers were abruptly laid off due to financial damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. In the blink of an eye, VVA’s once-sizable and strong government affairs team was slashed to two people. One of them is Goldsmith’s mentor, Rick Weidman, a gruff Vietnam veteran and VVA co-founder with a sweet side.

Weidman, like many vets, witnessed far too much violence in his time overseas as an Army medic. After he returned home, Weidman lent his voice to the unprecedented chorus of veterans speaking viscerally about war trauma. "I remember smoking a Camel cigarette and thinking, ‘This is all happening and I don't feel anything,’” Weidman once said while reflecting on his service. “I had successfully shut down to get the job done there. The problem is getting unfrozen later." 

Weidman’s list of policy accomplishments is far too long to tick off here. But much of his energy has gone towards unfreezing veterans. Over many hard-fought battles, he’s successfully pushed the VA to properly recognize and treat PTSD. Weidman’s also spent years working to secure greater health benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange and other chemicals dumped over Vietnam as part of Operation Ranch Hand, a toxic mission with a cruel motto: “only you can prevent a forest.”

Weidman’s made a difference largely because he’s unafraid to challenge power. He sometimes forgoes his official, drawn-out VVA job title for something more striking: “Well-Known Troublemaker for Vietnam Veterans of America.”

Time and again, as lawmakers allege there isn’t enough money to help vets, Weidman calls bullshit. And while some veteran advocates are today reticent to question President Donald Trump for fear of facing his Twitter wrath, Weidman remains tenacious. This was clearly witnessed during a 2017 White House meeting, when Weidman pushed Trump hard to help more vets poisoned by Agent Orange. Seemingly caught off guard by Weidman’s undisguised request, Trump spiraled into a bizarre, defensive monologue in which he conflated Agent Orange with napalm and spoke ramblingly about “Apocalypse Now.” (Weidman, who doesn’t like Francis Ford Coppola’s portrayal of the war, became annoyed.)

Weidman hasn’t given up the fight, but he’s now pushing into his ‘70s and suffers from a chronic lung condition. He’ll one day step down from his work as a veteran defender, inevitably leaving old problems unfinished and new ones unexplored.

He’s worked hard to protect his legacy and secure the future. One of VVA’s founding principles, after all, is that “never again will one generation of American veterans abandon another.” In service of this mission, Weidman and his contemporaries have taught young bucks like Goldsmith, and worked on problems relevant to the post-9/11 generation.

Yet just as war never changes, neither, it seems, do veterans’ issues. Younger advocates today are pushing the VA to recognize and treat ailments eerily similar to the ones experienced by the Vietnam generation. These include respiratory problems and rare cancers tied to burn pits, which spew out some of the same chemicals as Agent Orange, and a new invisible wound of war: Traumatic Brain Injury. Weidman’s successors are also navigating the same sort of political bloviating around veterans issues that date back to this country’s founding.

Yet something fundamental has changed since Weidman came to Washington. Veteran policymaking has become deeply politicized, and penetrated by special interests. When I dug deep into the VA’s newfound swamp culture for Politico Magazine, I found that 20 years ago, fewer than two dozen corporate interests lobbied the agency. That number’s since spiked to over 200.

This new class of lobbyists pledges fealty to those who’ve served only to side with the special interests that pay. As corporations gain power in the veteran space, traditional Veterans’ Service Organizations (VSOs) like VVA, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and The American Legion are losing members, money, and influence. Facing these dire conditions, some of the smartest veterans advocates have left the game entirely or been turned to the dark side.

“There’s now just a handful of true veteran advocates shaping federal policy,” Goldsmith observed. “Many more of the people influencing decisions and politicians are driven by a profit motive.” Weidman was similarly bleak in his assessment of the future of veteran advocacy. “The saying is that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” he said. “I believe that also applies to ensuring good veterans benefits. Without smart advocates in the fight, everything an be lost quite quickly.”

Veterans are historically some of the most successful political advocates in America.

In 1818, Revolutionary War veterans received the first public pensions based on service, following years of pitched political battle. After the Civil War, wives of veterans secured some of the first criminal justice reforms after their spouses were incarcerated for reckless behavior stemming from war trauma.

In the spring of 1932, 17,000 veterans of World War I and their families set up a high-functioning tent city in D.C. to demand the immediate issuance of promised benefit payments. And while their encampments were violently quashed by a hard-charging Army brigade under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur, the government eventually paid out what was owed.

In 1944, following a sustained and potent pressure campaign of Word War II veterans run out of the American Legion, Congress passed the original G.I. Bill, which enshrined a number of highly valuable new veteran benefits, including a free college education.

In 1971, an intrepid platoon of nearly one thousand Vietnam War veterans and Gold Star parents descended on D.C. for a five-day protest campaign code-named “Operation Dewey Canyon III.” Events included marching, singing, lobbying, and guerrilla theater led by the cast of the Broadway musical Hair. Over the following year, fourteen laws were passed that, among other things, extended certain VA benefits to widowers and established mortgage life insurance policies for the severely disabled.

The post-911 generation has secured a strong slate of policy wins, but much of their work has been defensive. Unlike previous generations, they face active threats from powerful private forces. On the G.I. Bill, for instance, they must contend with for-profit vultures like the University of Phoenix. As they push to improve the VA’s disability claims process some come up against dubious contractors like Veterans Evaluations Services, which, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), has subjected veterans to long wait times and made significant errors in exam reports. Then there’s predatory VA home loan companies like NewDay USA and SunWest Mortgage, which’ve targeted veterans and their families with high-risk refinancing options.

The most powerful force opposing the agenda of traditional veteran advocates is the private healthcare industry. Big hospitals, big doctors groups, and big drug companies first saw big dollar signs over the VA in 2014, when a wait-time scandal at a VA hospital in Phoenix greatly damaged the department’s reputation.

These interests soon after swooped in to shape the first major VA outsourcing law — the 2014 VA Choice Act. Any veteran advocate tapped into the community would tell you that veterans like the care they receive at the VA, and point to the voluminous research grading it better than what’s offered in the private sector. Many made these exact arguments in pushing back against Choice. Yet VSOs were unprepared for the firepower of corporate lobbying interests, and unwilling to counter a prevailing media narrative post-Phoenix that the VA was broken.

In the end, many came around to Choice after assurances that it was a temporary measure. VA patients, they were promised, would seamlessly move into the private sector temporarily while underlying capacity issues inside the department were resolved.

None of this happened. Instead, underlying VA staffing issues were not adequately addressed and thousands of veterans faced headaches seeking private care. This latter issue was largely thanks to the incompetence of Health Net and TriWest Healthcare Alliance, two federal contractors tasked with coordinating care under Choice. According to the VA’s Inspector General, these companies fumbled the process of transferring medical records from the VA to private providers and bungled appointment scheduling, with veterans waiting between 31 and 389 days for a private sector doc.

Despite these many issues, Trump was elected on a pledge to make Choice permanent, and he did. Early on in Trump’s term, veteran advocates uniformly organized to oppose this platform. In a big meeting with Trump’s first VA Secretary, David Shulkin, all the major VSOs declared, “We are not going to let you privatize the VA, plain and simple.”

Joe Chenelly, the Executive Director at AMVETS, said Shulkin promised them during that meeting that Trump would not expand community care. Days later, Shulkin went back on his word.

His about-face was a major indication that the old veteran world order was no more. The Trump administration subsequently took other additional steps — some subtle, others overt — to weaken the collective power of the the traditional veteran advocate. They clamped down on information, froze out advocates critical of Trump, and revoked a long-standing policy that allowed accredited officers at the VFW and the Legion to review veterans’ disability claims before they were finalized.

Trump’s VA also began scheduling piecemeal meetings with individual veterans groups rather than inviting in a broad coalition all at once. This made constructing coherent, unified messaging nearly impossible. “We no longer know what the other advocates are communicating, which makes us look scattered all over the place,” reflected Chenelly. “You have to wonder if that’s intentional on the VA’s part.”

Faced with these threats to their power, some advocates muted their opposition to Trump’s privatization law — The VA MISSION Act — in hopes of retaining influence on other issues. Others eager for a fight found their organization’s greatly weakened due to declining membership numbers, and ailing finances. Faced with anemic revenue, some of these groups — including the Legion, the VFW, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America — have accepted significant financial support from TriWest which, despite documented incompetence and allegations of over-billing on Choice, was awarded tens of billions of dollars to carry out MISSION.

In the end, veteran advocates publicly praised MISSION’s statutes while quietly lobbying to blunt the act’s most pernicious elements. Again, they were promised that outsourcing would be minimal, with few bumps in the road. Yet their strength at this point was at all-time low. As the all-important regulations around MISSION were being drafted, for instance, the Legion’s once-adroit VA policy team was gutted and, in the words of one current Legion staffer, “did not even engage.”

As the threat from traditional veteran gatekeepers has continued to wane, Trump’s VA has used MISSION to greatly outsource care. And according to a recent report from the GAO, the endemic administrative problems of Choice have persisted with MISSION.

There remain committed and influential advocates on Capitol Hill. But many have recently moved on to other ventures. Some first moved in the policy space, like Kayda Keleher, a fierce VA defender at the VFW who moved into a staff job for U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL).

But then Keleher, like many others, brought her considerable knowledge to a corporation — Aptive Resources — which has a financial interest in the VA. One of her former VFW colleagues, Carlos Fuentes, now works at Cerner Healthcare, which, under Trump, was awarded a $16 billion VA contract to overhaul the VA’s electronic health records. (This project, which was privately championed by Jared Kushner, is deeply troubled, and behind schedule.)

There’s also Lou Celli, a brash former policy guru at the American Legion who left his job earlier this year to work at a telemedicine platform called Zyter. One of his former Legion colleagues, Matthew Shuman, also left the Legion for the health technology giant Philips, which just inked a $100 million deal with the VA to create a tele-health system. Adrian Atizado, a deeply respected advocate inside Disabled American Veterans, has recently moved over to TriWest, which has employed a stable of powerful lobbyists including former VA Secretary Anthony Prinicipi and former House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller.

Chenelly remains committed to staying in veteran advocacy for the long haul. But he told me that he and others are facing “aggressive recruiting” from all the major healthcare companies looking for an edge in this era of VA outsourcing.

“They want to make their billions off the VA, so they reach into the community and pick out folks for their connections,” Chenelly said. “It can be tempting. You make a lot more for a corporate giant. Rather than working seven days a week, you can work two or three. I get it. Anytime you lose one great advocate it hurts. To lose a whole slew of them can be very difficult to recover from.”