Editor’s Note: Paul Rieckhoff is the president and editor-in-chief of Righteous Media, host of the Angry Americans podcast, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and author of “Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective.” The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
The Department of Veterans Affairs could learn an important lesson from their colleagues at SpaceX and NASA after the historic launch to the International Space Station last month was initially postponed due to inclement weather. When there’s a storm rolling in, you don’t fly into it, no matter how much a powerful person looking on wants it to happen.
For months now, we’ve been hearing President Donald Trump tout the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a “game changer” without providing any evidence of its efficacy as a treatment for coronavirus patients. Trump, who took a two-week course of the drug as a prophylactic, has asked, “What do you have to lose?”
For weeks now, studies have found that those taking hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19 are not showing improvement – and may be dying at a higher rate. (although at least one study finding that the drug had increased risks was recently withdrawn amidst controversy). The US Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health have warned about the use of these drugs by coronavirus patients outside of a hospital or clinical trial setting.
As we recognize the 76th anniversary of D-Day this month, the President and the Department of Veterans Affairs are using our veterans as guinea pigs to test Trump’s disproven theory about the potentially dangerous drug.
World Health Organization Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, halted testing of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19, France has banned it, and even Dr. Anthony Fauci thinks the drug shows no scientific promise.
Despite this, Trump and his VA Secretary are continuing to use the drug on veterans with Covid-19. Although Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said last month that the prescriptions have been “ratcheted down,” the VA said it had already prescribed the drug about 1,300 veterans in accordance with FDA guidelines.
When an earlier observational study using the VA’s own data found that veterans given hydroxychloroquine showed no improvement, with more deaths among those taking the drug compared to patients who received standard care, Wilkie defended the use of the drug and pushed an unsubstantiated claim in an interview with MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, saying, “We know the drug has been working on middle-age and younger veterans.” That was in late April, and despite no substantiated evidence for his statement.
Wilkie continued to double-down on his sycophantic lie. Two weeks ago, he told ABC’s Martha Raddatz the drug has preventative qualities, again echoing Trump. “We do know in many cases that the drug given over a sustained period of time can be a prophylactic. And what we were trying in the last hours of a patient’s life was to try to make sure that we’ve done everything we could given the circumstances,” he said.
Those are lies. There’s no data to show the prophylactic success of hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19. Wilkie told Raddatz: “the instruction from the President is to do as much as we can to preserve life.” Well, they’ve failed. More than 16,000 veterans and individuals associated with the VA have tested positive for Covid-19, and more than 1,400 have died. VA continues to obscure and bumble the release of patient information to the public. Last week, the agency went five full days without updating its public figures – including the number of dead.
The pandemic’s toll on veterans remains unclear. The VA, for one, does not include those who have died in state-run veterans’ homes on its tracking site. The Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts, for example, has already seen 93 veterans die.
At the Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home in New Jersey, every single resident tested positive for coronavirus; 62, or 34%, died. While these homes are not under the direct oversight of the VA, state veterans’ homes like the one in Holyoke are routinely investigated by it, and could certainly use reinforcements from in the form of PPE, cleaning supplies, and additional staff. Instead, the reinforcements are coming in the form of an unproven drug administered to those that held back the Nazis in World War II.
In another affront to our veterans, Wilkie refused to remove Nazi swastikas from three gravestones in American National Cemeteries for weeks. Two VA cemeteries in Texas and Utah contain the graves of German POWs captured during World War II, and Army officials approved swastikas and inscriptions honoring Adolf Hitler on the grave stones in the 1940s. A retired senior officer recently discovered the grave markers and called it “disgusting,” but the VA issued a statement citing The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the responsibility to “protect historic resources, including those that recognize divisive historical figures or events.”
Instead of removing the grave markers, Wilkie, who has long ties with racist and divisive causes, including being an aide to North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, who denounced Martin Luther King Jr., said he was looking to “find a way to put this in historical context.” Wilkie’s comments were particularly shocking, given the raging national debate about racism in America. He defended the display of swastikas more tenaciously than he defended the thousands of veterans dying from Covid-19.
He finally backed down, but only after criticism from both lawmakers and veterans. Our “greatest generation” faced down a menacing global threat and saved America. Now it’s time for Trump, Wilkie and all of America to face down another menacing global threat and save them.