During the past six weeks, American Legion staff has teamed up with local Legionnaires and Departments of Veterans Affairs employees in conducting Veterans Crisis Command Centers in five cities. At these centers, veterans get to meet face to face with Legion service officers and representatives from the Veterans Health Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration.
More than 2,000 veterans have come to these centers for help. And many of those, the Legion’s Verna Jones told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs today, have tragic stories to tell.
“I’m deeply saddened,” said Jones, the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation director. “The American Legion is saddened. We’ve listened to veterans and widows and children who, one by one, told their stories of broken promises, pain, mistreatment, delay and, yes, even death. Many of them – full of hurt, anger, confusion and uncertainty – just wanted to be heard.
“They’ve told their stories many times, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. The American Legion listened, because what they had to say matters. We wanted to help. It’s woven into the very fabric of who we are.”
Jones, who has been to all five crisis centers, told of a homeless veteran who spent his last $40 on a cab to the center in Fort Collins, Colo., to get help. In Phoenix, a 70-year-old widow was reduced to sleeping in gas station bathrooms because VA couldn’t get her claim right.
“She came to us in tears,” Jones said. “We were able to put her in front of the VA and get the errors fixed on the spot in our crisis center.
“I talked to a veteran in North Carolina who had been working on his claim for 14 years. As he left the crisis center he said, ‘I can’t believe it took me 90 minutes to fix 14 years.’”
Jones said she’s read letters from VA’s Office of the Special Counsel that reference “harmless errors” that include a veteran waiting more than eight years for a psychiatric appointment. “We have veterans taking their own lives 22 a day here in America, and it’s a harmless error that a veteran has to wait eight years for an appointment?” she asked.
Jones said that those who become whistleblowers within VA should be put in positions of leadership “so they can set the model for the people who work for them. You can clear out some room for them by getting rid of the ones who covered up veterans waiting for care so they could earn a little extra money every year.”
Jones said the Legion wants to fix VA – not tear it down – and that opinion is shared with many other veterans.
"I talked to veterans in every city who has a VA – a place that belongs to them – and want the doctors who understand their service and understand their needs,” she said. “When The American Legion says VA has a problem with access, with accuracy (and) with leadership, we don’t want to throw out the VA. We want to fix it.”
Jones again referenced the homeless veteran who spent his last $40 to get to a Legion crisis center.
“The system was supposed to take care of him,” she said. "He was broke, he felt broken, and he felt lost. He arrived after the crisis center had closed for that day, slept at a nearby gas station and walked to the crisis center the next morning. He was at his wits end. This was do or die for him.
“We were able work with VA to get him placed into a supportive housing program and receive the services he desperately needed. The (Legion) chairman for Veteran Affairs & Rehabilitation for The American Legion was so moved (that) he reimbursed the $40 the veteran spent to get there because we truly believe no veteran should have to pay for services they have already paid for by virtue of their honorable service. That’s what we want for veterans – the benefits they deserve. They shouldn’t have to get down to their last $40 to get there.”
Following her testimony, Jones was asked what advice she had for Robert McDonald, who has been nominated to take over as VA secretary. "Transparency, so things like this scandal don't happen again," she said. She was also asked if she though VA's budget needed an independent budget; Jones said yes, if it ensure every resource was being used to care for veterans.
The hearing also featured testimony from acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, as well as other veterans service organizations.
To read Jones' submitted testimony, click here.