Montel Williams visits a wounded service member at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan in February 2011. (Master Sgt. Michael Voss / Air Force)
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Montel Williams from his Navy days. He was commissioned in 1980 and left the service as a lieutenant commander in 1990. Navy photo. (Navy)
Navy and Marine Corps veteran Montel Williams is mad as hell that veterans are dying while waiting to be seen at Veterans Affairs Department medical facilities — mad enough to wage a social media campaign to get President Obama to fix VA.
Williams has launched a petition to the White House calling for Obama to give VA and other responsible agencies 90 days to clear the backlog of veterans waiting for care. The petition also asks Obama to open other federal medical facilities to veterans and to consider appointing Kenneth Fisher, chairman of Fisher House Foundation Inc., as the next VA secretary.
“As the problems at the VA mount by the day, what is clear is that we have no idea what full scope of the problem is much less how to fix it,” the petition says. “We cannot wait for a gridlocked Congress. Mr. President, we need a Surge for the VA Today. Let this be part of your legacy.”
Veterans advocacy is nothing new for Williams, who enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1974 and was accepted at the U.S. Naval Academy two years later. He spoke to Military Times on June 12 about what drives him and why he is angry about how politicians treat veterans.
Q: It appears you have become very involved in veterans’ issues. What prompted that?
I have never not been involved with veterans issues. I did 22 years in the military. Every year for the 17 years of “The Montel Williams Show,” I’m one of the only shows on TV throughout that period of time that dedicated at least two hours a season to the military. I also flew in and out of the Persian Gulf — I was one of the only people doing it — from ’91 until 2000. I’m a board member of Fisher House; I have been for the last seven years. I’ve been involved with everything, going to visit the troops at Walter Reed and Bethesda ... this is nothing new.
I don’t publicize it or put any of it in the press, but over the last four years, I’ve fed soldiers around America at Fisher Houses and I’ve fed well over 12,000 of them to date. I’m also involved with the military on other levels. I am the face of what’s called the Defense Logistics Agency’s Healthy Base Initiative. I was asked by the surgeon general of the Army to be the face of the military’s project [Operation] Live Well.
What people are seeing from me has been a continuation of my 22 years [of service]. I never took my uniform off and I never will.
Q: Would it be accurate to say you’ve increased the volume recently by increasing your presence on social media?
Maybe the presence on social media has increased but the volume has always been the same. Social media has caught the attention of the media and people are thinking this is something new. But if there was a social media around 10 years ago, I would have had the exact same amount of coverage for going out to the Persian Gulf and spending two weeks out there taking messages to soldiers over Christmastime. But we didn’t have social media back then.
People are paying attention to the fact that more people are paying attention to our issues and I just happen to be one of the messengers.
Q: Why have you dedicated so much of your time to veterans’ issues?
I enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 17. I spent the next 17 years of my life on active duty and five years after that in the Reserves. I served in every single hotspot that this country had from 1974 all the way through until 1991. I was on Grenada when we invaded. I was part of a submarine force. I’ve got over 300 days under the water. I have over 600 days on top of the water. I was deployed around the world.
My military commitment never stopped when I took the uniform off. As a matter of fact, I’m sitting here in my living room and I’m in my underwear, but my uniform is on as much as it was the day I graduated from boot camp.
Q: Among all the issues facing veterans’ right now, what do feel is most pressing?
Most pressing is the apathy on the part of the American public. Look at what just happened over the course of the last six weeks. We found out that there was a problem in a [VA] hospital in Arizona. One VA hospital. Back then, everyone was aghast, appalled, upset, angered by the fact that they had approximately 1,100 to 1,700 retired veterans who weren’t on a list. And ‘Oh my God, this is crazy!’” Congress was calling for congressional committee hearings.
Three days later Sgt. Bergdahl comes back and we take the attention off the issue at hand and we don’t go back to it. Now when we find out that 1,700 — are you kidding me? — there could be close to half a million veterans not on a list. Where’s the disgust? Where is the anger? Last night Congressman [Eric] Cantor didn’t get reelected. Really? And this takes over the fact that there are over 300,000 soldiers who we made a promise to, we owe a debt to, that we have just gone ahead and said, “Screw you”?
Q: What would you say is your message?
I’m trying to get both sides of this coin — Democratic and Republican — to understand that they need to put veterans’ issues first, not just with lip service, but to do so truly. When I talk about having a VA surge, or a veterans’ surge, that just means [putting] the same amount of energy into saving them as we put into having them give up parts of their lives or parts of their bodies — or their lives.
If any one of those guys in Guantanamo needs a doctor today, they see one in 25 minutes. All the people complaining about the ones we threw away, we just traded in a deal: That just cut the military’s medical budget because we had doctors on staff just for them. Why can’t we do the same thing for the guys that protect the freedom that allow us to claim we won that war?
Until I get heard, I’m going to be screaming in the loudest voice I can. I’m going to try to rally as many people of like mind as I can. And if takes being as extreme as I can be, even during this next political cycle, I’m going to remind people that the same people begging for their vote are the same people that turned their backs on America. If you turn your back on a soldier, you turn your back on who protects our Constitution and its democracy; therefore, you turn your back on America. And I’m going to make sure the world knows it.