Where were the brass at the VA trauma center opening?

The Obama administration made a lot of promises to veterans about improving post-service care and cleaning up the problems associated with VA hospitals, and politicians of both parties make a lot of noise about supporting the wounded warriors.  While a private group raised $65 million and opened a new Center of Excellence for traumatic brain injury — based on a bipartisan effort started in 2007 — few top officials from either party or the military attended the ceremony that completed the bequest to the Veterans Administration.  Leslie Gelb wonders why:

It was inauguration day for the nation’s most modern facility for the treatment of active-duty soldiers and veterans suffering from brain injuries and psychological disorders—5,000 of them with families on hand. At the podium in Bethesda, Maryland, stood Arnold Fisher, the chief fundraiser for this precious center that may need to care for hundreds of thousands of victims, searching in vain for one White House official, one Cabinet officer, one member of the Joint Chiefs, one senator. He found none. And he asked again and again, “Where are they?”

Where were they? President Obama was in meetings and having a hamburger lunchwith Russian President Medvedev. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also at these meetings, though not at the hamburger shop in Virginia. Michelle Obama, who has made caring for military families one of her top priorities, couldn’t make it; she was said to have given her final “no” at the last minute. She was accompanying Mrs. Medvedev on a visit to the Duke Ellington School for the Arts in D.C., where they watched a dance performance. Vice President Joe Biden also met with Russians and with Israelis. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sent his deputy William Lynn III. All four Joint Chiefs sent their deputies. General Eric Shinseki, secretary of Veterans Affairs, couldn’t make it. Not one among the legions of pro- and antiwar hooting senators could find the time. Only two members of the House of Representatives found their way to the ceremony. …

The victims of battle shock and their families in attendance that day, June 24, needed no convincing. And without doubt, they were surprised—no, stunned—by the truancies. The absences certainly stunned members of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, the group that raised the $65 million for the facility. This group also funded and built another notable and unique facility, the Center for the Intrepid, in San Antonio, Texas. It was dedicated in 2007 to amputees and burn victims. A related group, the Fisher House Foundation, has funded and constructed some 45 houses around the United States and abroad that enable families of military personnel receiving treatment to stay by the sides of their loved ones. (Last year, Obama donated $250,000 of his Nobel Prize money to the Fisher House Foundation. It was his largest donation from his Nobel largesse.) Top officials from the George W. Bush administration had attended that 2007 opening. So did Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton, who each donated to the center and were there to bless its opening.

Actually, the truancies extended to the media as well.  Gelb notes that only Rachel Maddow gave any television attention to the opening and Fisher’s complaint about the lack of official attention.  It seems that no one wanted to cover the good news, and in fact it mainly went unnoticed.

Why would that be?  In 2007, of course, the military actions overseas were a lot more controversial, and both parties jockeyed for political positioning on both the wars and their aftermaths for veterans.  Democrats and Republicans alike wanted to be seen as supportive of veterans (and, in fact, both parties have been over the last several years), to some extent as a proxy for arguing over the war.  In 2010, that political battle has mainly ended as a Democratic President ramps up the fighting in Afghanistan and maintains the withdrawal schedule set by George W. Bush for Iraq.  And with the fading of that debate, the issue of veterans’ treatment also seems to have faded in importance for those within Washington DC.

Give Gelb an attaboy for pointing this out — and Maddow as well.  The absence of Shinseki is the most egregious, but there’s plenty of blame left over for the Obama administration, other military officials, and Republicans on the Hill, too.  This kind of good news, showing that the private sector approach to raising the funds necessary for treating the long-lasting effects of combat can make a big impact, should have gotten a lot more attention from everyone involved.

Update: Apparently, John McCain made it to this event as well.  He was on Don Imus’ show broadcast live from the center that morning.