SAN DIEGO — Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan on Thursday called for President Obama to address allegations of neglect and mismanagement at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities in Arizona, Colorado and Texas.
“The question we have is, what’s next? Are there other VA facilities that are having this problem where people are allegedly cooking the books?” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “It feels like every week there’s a new VA controversy.”
Whistleblowers in Phoenix have alleged that at least 40 veterans died because of neglect and delays at the VA hospital there and that employees used a secret wait list to cover up the backlog. VA employees in Fort Collins, Colorado, and in San Antonio and Austin, Texas, have also reported that employees at those clinics manipulated data to make wait times appear shorter.
The American Legion and some members of Congress have called for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign. The IAVA has not yet called for Shinseki’s resignation, but Rieckhoff wants to know why they shouldn’t.
“It’s clear there’s been a failure of leadership and accountability at the top,” he said.
Rieckhoff and a handful of other veterans gathered in front of the War Memorial building to air their concerns the same day Obama landed in southern California for fundraising events.
David Curry, a Marine veteran who lives in San Diego, said he was “enraged,” but not surprised, when he heard the recent allegations. Curry was medically retired from the Marine Corps and has also worked at the VA, he said.
In 2007, a friend and fellow former Marine suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder was turned away from two VA clinics in the Minneapolis area, even though he told employees at both locations he was suicidal, Curry said. The man killed himself days later.
While the VA has many excellent employees, he said, there are also a significant number who do not make veterans the priority and who do not care about efficiency and effectiveness. And, he said, supervisors and leaders often have their hands tied because it is so hard to demote or get rid of employees, even if they aren’t doing good work.
Shinseki on Thursday ordered a nationwide audit of VA facilities, and the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday voted to subpoena Shinseki for records relating to the Phoenix waiting list. But Rieckhoff said the president must meet with veterans groups to send the message that he’s serious about the issue.
“This is not blowing over,” he said. “This is cutting to the heart of America’s trust in its VA.”