Wounded Vets on Government Agenda?

Four months ago, the Dole-Shalala Report offered recommendations on how to reform the military's handling of wounded GIs. Delbert Spurlock served as Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserves Affairs from 1983 to1989. He's been watching the progress resulting from the report and shares his insight.

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From the personal, we move to the big picture and the canvas of what happens to America's vets. In late July, a bipartisan commission gave the president its views on how the U.S. should help wounded troops returning from war. It was informally called the Dole-Shalala report because it was led by former Senator Bob Dole and former Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala.

Delbert Spurlock read that report very closely. From 1983 to 1989, he served as assistant secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs. He's tracking where the treatment of veterans and soldiers would go from here.

Delbert, welcome.

Mr. DELBERT SPURLOCK (Former Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs): How are you?

CHIDEYA: I'm doing great. We've just been listening to Larry Williams' story. And you've said that human casualties are national deaths. What do you mean by that?

Mr. SPURLOCK: Well, let's just take the example of Mr. Williams himself. If 30 years ago, Mr. Williams had been viewed as an asset to the country - someone who had served, someone who knew how to relate to people, someone who knew how to sacrifice for the good of the country. If we had viewed him in that way 30 years from now, a great many more people would have been helped by the kind of capacity that he now exhibits. And he himself would not have been gone through the kind of problems that he has experienced.

We don't view our young people who passed through our military as assets, because they represent a tremendous resource for our country. If you take it just an example of people totally divorced from the kind of issues that we're talking about here, the United States put hundreds of thousands of young people in Germany and Korea in the '50s, '60, '70s and '80s serving with honor, understanding an international culture in a way which could have brought tremendous benefits to this country if we'd used them and used those kinds of experiences when they got out. But we did not do that.

In the current situation, we're simply not focusing on how valuable our young people can be to us as they come out of the service even in their current conditions which requires substantial support and recognition of the kind of difficulties they and their family are going through.

CHIDEYA: Delbert, talking about some of those challenges. This Dole-Shalala report came out in July. And you have written about how it could have been or how it could be a basis for a national dialogue. What would you like to see come out of that kind of analysis of veterans' affairs and what America owes veterans? And you even have a proposal about paying for the recommendations. Tell us about that proposal.

MR. SPURLOCK: Well, let me give some kudos to Secretary Shalala and Senator Dole for the report that they led. They did it very quickly. They did it under the gun. They came up with some very significant potential improvements to the DOD and VA system for seamlessly transitioning our soldiers into the public sector, simplifying the process. They came up with a number of proposals, one of which was extraordinarily interesting in terms of the development of recovery plans which would support our soldiers returning from the current conflicts.

Those recovery plans would be led by recovery coordinators who would work with the families and the soldiers themselves who are departing to ease their transition into the public sector. That's a very interesting and a very significant kind of breakthrough in terms of how we've dealt with our soldiers in the past who are leaving the service particularly those who are handicapped, injured and need assistance.

CHIDEYA: But how could we pay for it?

MR. SPURLOCK: There was no issue about the payment for this kind of structure that Dole-Shalala recommended at the time. My view is that this is not enough, however. All - Dole-Shalala addressed itself to those Afghani and Iraqi returning soldiers from those conflicts and did not address the whole panoply of issues that affect our veterans of whom Mr. Williams is one.

The Dole-Shalala report, it seems to me, should be applicable to the entire array of veterans that we have in our society. The problems that they pinpointed refer not simply to those veterans who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan; they reapply, quite obviously, to the kinds of people that Mr. Williams has been dealing with.

My view is, however, that that is not nearly enough to take care of the returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. They have particularistic kinds of issues and problems and their families are handicapped, their communities, their local communities are handicapped by their capacity to respond to the needs of these brave young and - men and women.

And we need something more above - something above the Shalala-Dole construct to deal with them. And I think the basis for that new and immediate kind of attention is demanded by, essentially, what we promise these young people when they came into the service. And it's demonstrably different than the kinds of things that were promised or expected in previous conflicts.

CHIDEYA: Do you think that the U.S. military, with which you have plenty of experience, can survive as an all-volunteer force with some of the challenges at stake both abroad and for returning veterans?

MR. SPURLOCK: The fact of the matter is that during my era, we were spending, oh, upwards of $110 million dollars on recruiting advertising for the Army alone. We made certain kinds of representations in that advertising. But the most effective advertising is word-of-mouth advertising between people who are returning from the service and young people who are potentially interested in going in the service.

If the imagery, that we project for those returning service people is such that they do not reflect the concern and the support which these young people who have an inclination to come into the service demand or expect, then our recruiting numbers are going to go down as has been the case in recent years.

CHIDEYA: Well, Delbert Spurlock, I hope that you will consider coming back on and giving us more of your wisdom. Thank you so much.

Mr. SPURLOCK: Appreciate it. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Delbert Spurlock served as assistant secretary of Army for Manpower and Reserves Affairs from 1983 to 1989.

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