Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie is furious after a federal union president said that if politicians don’t end the partial government shutdown, federal employees who are veterans will kill themselves.
Edward M. Canales, a local union president with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), told ABC News that he’s received calls from veterans who aren’t able to support their families during the shutdown and who express “no positive outlook on the future.”
Though there is no indication in the story that the employees were suicidal, ABC said Canales referred employees unhappy with the government shutdown to the Department of Veterans Affairs suicide hotline.
“If this shutdown does not stop, we are going to have fatalities. We’re going to have suicides,” Canales, a retired prisons employee and veteran, told ABC. He called the shutdown “shameful” and said it is “slapping every veteran in the face who has served their country.”
Veterans who receive care and services from the VA are unaffected by the partial government shutdown; all VA employees are also being paid on time as normal. The VA is fully funded for fiscal year 2019 and all VA operations continue unimpeded, the department said.
On Monday, Wilkie fired back at AFGE in a letter to national president J. David Cox, saying AFGE was exploiting “the real tragedy of Veteran suicide to make political arguments about the partial Government shutdown.” He went on to dismantle the stereotype of fragile veterans:
One of the most insulting and misleading stereotypes about Veterans today is that of the ‘Veteran as victim.’ … the notion that most Veterans are so fragile from their service that the slightest hint of hardship can push them to the brink of mental breakdown or even self-harm is preposterous, which is why Veterans and Veteran advocates are continuously fighting this shopworn canard.
As leader of the largest union representing VA employees, many of whom are Veterans, you should know how harmful this stereotype is to Veterans, especially those attempting to enter the civilian workforce following their service…
While it is apparent some AFGE leaders consider Veterans as victims, allow me to inform you of the true character traits of those who have worn the uniform.
- Veterans are models of civic engagement, holding stronger ties to their communities and volunteering and voting at higher rates than their non-Veteran counterparts
- The Veterans’ unemployment rate is lower than the national average, in part because companies often look to hire Veterans for complex and demanding jobs, citing their leadership and work ethic.
In short, America’s Veterans are model citizens and leaders, and almost every American recognizes that. AFGE Local President Canales’ attempt to use Veterans as pawns in a political debate while exploiting the serious issue of Veteran suicide is nothing short of disgraceful.
I ask you to apologize publicly for your AFGE colleague’s reckless comments and to outline the steps you plan to take to ensure AFGE leaders demonstrate proper respect for our Nation’s heroes.
In 2016, Cox called the House chairman tasked with overseeing the VA a “fool” and said he would “whoop” the VA secretary’s “ass.”
The AFGE represents employees of federal agencies including the VA. The VA employs 300,000 people and its union is particularly strong, fighting to block the firing of employees whose misconduct has harmed veterans, and securing policies that, for example, in some case give current federal employees preference over veterans for job openings.
When the Department of Defense and the VA merged two of their hospital as an experiment, they found a massive cultural clash between the VA’s unionized, civilian workforce and the DOD’s enlisted hospital employees. The Navy refused to let VA employees treat military men in the ICU, and the VA and DOD co-directors of the hospital were not on speaking terms.
The proposal was supposed to save money by reducing redundancies, but the VA union ensured that no VA employees were laid off even though they weren’t needed, defeating the purpose.
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