New Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald has the Herculean task of trying to right his scandal-plagued department, a mighty challenge forcefully defied by institutional resistance to change and a bureaucratic belief that its core mission is to serve the best interests of the government rather than those of the men and women who served the country in uniform.
VA's latest success in embarrassing itself involves the Air Force's fleet of C-123 aircraft that sprayed the toxic defoliant Agent Orange on the jungles of Southeast Asia in the Vietnam War.
After the war, the planes were scrubbed down and kept in service, with 1,500 to 2,100 troops flying on them before they were retired for good in 1982. Many of those troops are now sick with cancer and other illnesses that they've long claimed were caused by toxic residue lingering in those C-123 airframes.
That charge was backed up in 2012 in a government report. In customary fashion, VA's response was complete denial. Now, a new scientific review has come to the same conclusion as the earlier report — "with confidence."
It's the latest in decades of VA health controversies: depleted uranium, burn pits, tainted anthrax vaccine, and more. In the pointed words of Rick Weidman of Vietnam Veterans of America, VA's standard approach to veterans' environmental health issues is "delay, deny, wait 'til they die."
McDonald somehow must turn around this massive, calcified outfit that still lacks vision, accountability, and, most importantly, trust among many of the veterans it was created to serve.
VA officials promise to respond to the newest C-123 report. That response will go a long way toward determining whether McDonald can effect the changes so badly overdue at VA.