Veterans Commission Gets Earful

Veterans Commission

Harry Walters is a former adminstrator of the VA. But this normally mild-mannered bureaucrat became anything but, when a group of veterans demanded to be heard.

WALTERS: I wouldn't be standing up here for one minute to put this commission together, put the service organizations to come together for the first time in their history - the first time ever! - they sit together on my board. We're damm serious about veterans! You want to holler at me about it? I'll holler til the cows come home!

Walters and the other members of group that calls itself 'The Commission on the Future for America's Veterans' tried to stick to a script. They played a video lauding the country's fighting men and women, and even brought out 'the singing cop' - former New York City policeman and baritone Daniel Rodriguez - to perform the national anthem.

But some veterans in the audience at the Moffitt Cancer Center wanted to make sure their voices were heard.

LESTER: I'm going to get my time in, because you're not going to call my name. I already know that. Because the question I put on the paper, you don't want to address. Address that question!

Charles Lester drove five hours from Miami last night to tell the commission members that he waited nine months before he could get treatment for a series of injuries.

Lester says while on active duty in the Army, he was struck by a fellow serviceman who was driving drunk on his base in El Paso. His spine was operated on, but Lester says after he retired, he had nothing but trouble getting disability benefits.

LESTER: I've been blessed with good surgeons, but the system has holes in it. There's no way you should be waiting for board of veterans appeals for anywhere from two to six years. That's ridiculous.

The commission is made up mostly of former VA administrators, plus former Pinellas Congressman, Mike Bilirakis. They're all volunteers on the commission, which was created last year by five veterans groups. Their plan is to hold several more meeting around the country and release their recommendations to the public next spring. Member David Sevier:

SEVIER: We don't report to the president, we don't report to Congress. As a matter of fact, the people that we report to are you.

Commission members mostly heard praise about the quality of the health care in the VA hospital system. But there was no shortage of complaints about disability benefits and how reservists can't get money for school after their active duty ends.

The commission reported that there are 200,000 Iraq veterans entering the VA hospital system. And that means a strain on services that hasn't been seen since the 1960s.

John Barnes of Tampa entered the system last year, while he was serving in Iraq.

BARNES: We had just parked our vehicles in our patrol base. And we had several mortar rounds explode around us - one of which exploded about ten feet from me, and sent shrapnel through my skull, above my left eye - it went through my brain - and ended up in the right rear side of my skull.

Barnes was evacuated to a forward Army hospital, where they had to cut into his skull to relieve the pressure. He was then transferred to the Haley VA Hospital in Tampa. But his mother, Valerie Wallace, said his troubles didn't end there.

WALLACE: There's not enough specialists in the specialty of neurosurgery and neurosurgeons that are equipped right now to deal with these new injuries that this war has seen. He saw so many neurosurgeons and neurologists here and through USF, but not one of them - in six weeks - could diagnose the problem.

She says not until they finally called his former neurosurgeon at Walter Reed Army Medical Center did the right diagnosis finally come through - an acute buildup of fluid on his brain.

Wallace had one question for the commission:

WALLACE: How are we going to entice top surgeons to come take care of our soldiers that are dealing with these new injuries of this war? Injuries that haven't been seen in the past?

Several commission members said that's something they'll try to get addressed. But one thing that became clear during the meeting is they don't have any power to change anything.

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