MST survivor finds hope at Legion SWS town hall

Melinda “Mindy” Weller, a survivor of military sexual trauma (MST), found the hope she’d been seeking at a System Worth Saving (SWS) town hall hosted by The American Legion this week in Phoenix.

“It was difficult because when I filed, they said it happened when I wasn’t in the service,” said Weller, an Army veteran and member of Post 115 in Glendale. “My DD214 was done so quickly when I left that it was incorrect so I had to have the Army fix it.”

Last July she filed the initial U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) claims paperwork with the help of an American Legion service officer. Part of her task was to write a statement of what happened. “It’s traumatizing. You can see the anger on the paper because I had never written it down before. It was in big letters, it was not nicely written. It was very jagged and loud on paper.”

Weller regularly followed up with in-person visits and phone calls to no avail.

As of April 29, the VA website showed the last update was made Aug. 22.

“I have heard nothing,” said Weller, who added that she has been able to get medications, covered under the COMPACT Act. “It’s been very difficult. You’re not in a good headspace. You get triggered and get symptoms and PTSD kicks in and then you wind up on a psychiatric floor, traumatized, and don’t even know what is going on.”

Weller was among the veterans who shared their experiences during the SWS town hall, hosted by American Legion Post 1 in Phoenix. As she told her story, three different representatives from the VA Phoenix Health Care System apologized, offered their support and handed her their business cards, telling her to follow up the next day.

“That’s comforting, I haven’t heard anything for eight months,” she said. “Lately, I’ve had a lot of animosity and anger. Why are we waiting this long? Regular cases take 150 days. It’s been over 250 days and we are still waiting. I’m glad I came because now they are going to look into it because it is concerning to them and it should be concerning to them. I feel like they are going to do something about it now. I’m so glad I came tonight.”

A decade ago this month, controversy erupted at the Phoenix VA over massive wait times in its health-care system, as well as others across the network. Phoenix VA officials were accused of keeping a secret wait list of veterans who were seeking health care and vastly underreporting how long it took for patients to see a doctor. Media reports indicated 40 veterans died while on the wait list.

American Legion Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission Chairman Autrey James served as emcee at the town hall and led the contingent that met with Phoenix VA leadership and staff.

“We wanted to come back and make sure things were moving in the right direction,” said James, a member of American Legion Post 161 in Antioch, Calif. “System Worth Saving is important. It allows us to take a look at the VAs and see what is going on. It gives them the opportunity to talk about some of their needs. And it gives us ammunition when we go before Congress to talk about what we are doing and what needs to be done.”

He pointed out the purpose of SWS visits.

“It’s not an inspection,” he explained. “That is not what we are there to do. We certainly have conversations about best practices throughout the nation that we have seen at other VAs. We have been welcomed by VA every time. They value the things that we see and the input of the veterans at the town halls.”

Weller left as a satisfied veteran.

“It’s important to have these because you have people like me who come in here. They are angry, they are hurt, they are suffering,” she said. “Regardless of what it is — MST, PTSD due to to combat, all of these things, — it matters. These shine a light on something that may slip through the cracks.”

Jennifer Kritzer, a member of American Legion Post 29 in Glendale, helped coordinate the event at the local level. “The American Legion is working hand-in-hand with the VA to ensure that our servicemembers are getting taken care of and are getting the benefits they deserve and they’ve earned,” she said. 

Kritzer, who moved to Arizona in 2020, uses the Phoenix VA for her health care. Referencing the 2014 crisis, she said, “It was a big mess. But they came in and tried to try change the circumstances for a lot of veterans. I think with our new facilities that have been built, the new programs, the new satellites, the new pods, it has really helped reach out to veterans, especially rural ones.”

Wickenburg Post 12 in Arizona is among Legion posts that host a pod, which allows veterans who live in rural areas to meet virtually with health-care providers in a private setting.

The Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission conducts site visits to VA medical facilities and regional offices across the country. While on site, American Legion representatives meet with veterans, their families and VA administrators and employees to discuss issues and solutions at each site. These observations are compiled into a System Worth Saving report that is distributed to VA officials, members of Congress and the public.

In May, the Legion will conduct a SWS visit to Albuquerque, N.M. Other sites will follow throughout this year. 

Now, in its 20th year, the SWS program has logged hundreds of visits.

“The system, as a whole, does have some issues,” James said. “But any one single VA you go to, you are going to find positive people who are dedicated to veterans health and welfare. The VA health-care system is a System Worth Saving.”