Why the VA became a lightning rod for controversy

This is the sad history of the VA
This is the sad history of the VA

Veterans care in America gets a pretty bad rap.

While the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is rooted in noble intentions, it has been plagued with controversy for years.

The VA has faced reports of excessive and contradictory spending, allegations of inadequate health care, a massive backlog of benefits claims and a secretary position that nobody can seem to hold down.

But it hasn't always been this way. The agency was elevated to federal administration status in 1930, with the intention to honor and care for the men and women who served in battle.

Since then, the U.S. has been involved in a growing list of military operations, including a 17-year-long war in Afghanistan. The VA is struggling to keep up as the need for veterans care continues to mount.

Pedestrians walk past the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Some veterans can't get to care centers because they live so far away. The VA's Office of Rural Health is working to address the problem through solutions like Telehealth and transportation services.

Other veterans are facing wait times of months, or even years, just to get an appointment at their VA care center. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, is trying to solve that problem in his own district. In 2015 O'Rourke introduced a proposal to improve the El Paso VA Health Care System. The VA backed the plan and approved it for a pilot test, which O'Rourke says has been going well.

And he doesn't rely on the VA itself to tell him how things are going. O'Rourke's team conducts its own annual survey to gauge how accessible the VA really is to veterans in El Paso.

"We don't trust the VA to tell us how the VA is doing, we trust veterans to tell us how the VA is doing," said O'Rourke, who is also running to take on Republican Sen. Ted Cruz this fall.

Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas
Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

But the VA as a whole is still facing a long list of problems.

The benefits claims process for veterans is a bit like a game of legal "Chutes and Ladders."

"Veterans have heard stories, but a lot of them are surprised when they encounter the VA," said Jim Vale, assistant director for claims at the American Legion. "The most important thing is to be represented."

Fixing the VA isn't a partisan issue. It's not specific to one demographic group or geographic region. Every U.S. representative has a veteran in their district, and nobody wants to be on the wrong side of it.

Politicians across the aisle and veterans across the country are watching to see who will fill the vacant VA secretary seat.

On May 18, Trump announced he plans to nominate acting Secretary Robert Wilkie to become the permanent secretary. The appointment still needs to be confirmed by the Senate.

And there's a lot riding on the nomination. The VA's new leader will be responsible for the largest integrated health-care system in the U.S., and the well-being of more than 9 million veterans.

— CNBC's Dan Mangan and Amanda Macias contributed to this report.