VA official tells American Legion delegates agency must earn back veterans’ trust ‘one veteran at a time’

A U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs official told delegates at the American Legion Convention in Charlotte on Saturday that in time the embattled agency will emerge stronger than ever.

Speaking at the legion’s National Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission meeting, Carolyn Clancy, acting under secretary for health, said “it may seem to some we’ve lost our way, but it’s a greater opportunity for improvement.”

The VA came under fire this year after a scandal over reports of lengthy patient waiting times at many VA hospitals and clinics, and falsified appointment records.

In May, American Legion national commander Dan Dellinger called for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. The new VA secretary, Robert McDonald, was nominated by President Barack Obama. Both will address the convention Tuesday.

On the second day of the 96th national convention for the largest U.S. veterans organization, Clancy called the new VA secretary the department’s “secret weapon,” saying “his energy is relentless.”

She said the VA officials were grateful for $15 billion in new funding Congress recently approved. Over the next three years, the money will allow the VA to do such things as address the backlog of veterans’ claims, hire additional medical staff and improve infrastructure.

Despite the negative news, Clancy said, the VA does “great good on a daily basis.” She said the VA is the “largest single provider of mental health services in the U.S.

“I fully expect to hear about additional challenges, and I say, ‘bring it on,’ ” Clancy told delegates. “We know we have to earn back veterans’ trust one veteran at at time.”

After Clancy’s remarks, delegate Don Mathis of the Dayton, Tenn., area, said in an interview that the VA’s efforts to regain veterans’ trust “will be a long march.”

“The VA is such a large organization,” said Mathis, a Marine Corps veteran. “I think they’ll significantly improve it. But it will take the legion and other veterans groups keeping a good, close watch.”

Convention business included panel discussions on such topics as veteran claims/benefits, employment, education and “ensuring veterans and their families have a final resting place that commemorates their service.” There also was a roundtable on the issue of homeless veterans.

The president’s upcoming visit was on the minds of delegates such as 82-year-old Victor Torres of Ponce, Puerto Rico.

An Army veteran, he fought in Korea and Vietnam and was a drill instructor at Fort Bragg. His five sons all joined the Army, one serving four tours of duty in Iraq.

His question to Obama would be: What are you going to do to help Puerto Rico?

“There’s no work, the money’s bad, and there’s a lot of crime,” Torres said. “And we need to see if we can be a state.”

Army veteran Janet Wilson, 61, the first woman to be elected American Legion state commander in California, said she’d like to tell the president, “Don’t balance the budget on the backs of our veterans.”

A 27-year veteran of the legion, she said the national commander’s call for the VA secretary’s resignation has resulted in increased membership at her legion post in Antioch, Calif.

“His stepping up to the plate made us so very, very proud,” Wilson said. “No other service organization went out on a limb like the legion did.”

VA seen as broken

Carol Kennedy, American Legion state commander for Colorado, reflected on the VA’s need to help veterans in rural areas who live far from hospitals.

A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, Kennedy recalled her work as a flight nurse with former prisoners of war released in Vietnam.

“They said they listened to the B-52s every day,” she said. “When they heard the bombing, they said, ‘We knew America hadn’t forgot us. We knew you were still there.’ ’’

Those words echoed as she considered a VA she described as “broken” and a president whose treatment of veterans she described as “atrocious.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer