The head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, should explain why he didn't early and aggressively investigate the Veterans Affairs Department scandal involving manipulated wait times and the deaths of veterans.
"If you want to be commander-in-chief, let's ask some hard questions of Bernie Sanders on why he didn't do more, why he didn't hold more oversight hearings," Paul Rieckhoff said during a panel discussion on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. "We and others called him out for basically being an apologist for the VA as the scandal erupted around him."
Sanders, an Independent lawmaker who caucuses with the Democrat Party, chaired the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee until last year's midterm elections, when the Republicans regained control of the Senate.
His campaign office didn't immediately respond to an email request for comment.
Most of the pressure put on the VA last year came from the House Veterans Affairs Committee, which is now chaired by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida.
Rieckhoff made his comments during a discussion of news coverage of the VA, and began by pointing out that none of the questions prepared by CNN during a recent debate among GOP presidential hopefuls dealt with veterans. Only after the widow of a fallen service member raised the issue with the moderator was a veterans-related question asked, he said.
Kevin Baron, executive editor of conference co-sponsor DefenseOne, said Sanders "protected the VA ... because going after it, really rooting out what was wrong with it, would be admitting that government-run health care doesn't work. And Bernie Sanders supports government-run health care."
The two also raised the matter of GOP Presidential hopeful Donald Trump's backing by a bogus veterans group, as well as the lobbying efforts of Concerned Veterans for America, which has been linked financially to the Koch brothers.
"They are a very conservative, politically involved organization that tries to sell itself as a veteran's organization, but they're a political organization," Baron said. "They get people elected who have very conservative values, very hawkish military values ... I think there is an undertone of that." Rieckhoff said questioning the candidates on these kinds of issues "transcend beyond the veterans community and cut to the core of leadership." --Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.