- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Just as President Obama is promising to reform veterans’ health care and restore “dignity” to the system, the Veterans Affairs office in Philadelphia is apologizing for depicting dissatisfied veterans as Oscar the Grouch in an internal training guide.

A slide show presented to VA employees last week portrayed veterans as the grumpy Sesame Street character who lives in a garbage can. The training guide also described veterans as possibly having unrealistic expectations, and advises staffers to apologize for the public “perception” of the scandal-ridden agency.

In one slide, a sign reading “CRANKY” hangs from the rim of Oscar’s garbage can. In another, Oscar’s face is accompanied by the words “100% GROUCHY, DEAL WITH IT.”

The presentation included tips on how to tell if a veteran is nearing an “outburst,” including being accusatory, agitated, demanding, or unfocused, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. It was delivered to VA staffers in advance of two town-hall meetings to be held for veterans in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

Army veteran Christian DeJohn, who works at the Philadelphia VA office, said he found the training session “condescending and patronizing” toward vets.

“What struck me at first was the choice of words — it talked about ‘managing’ and ‘dealing with’ widows and veterans,” Mr. DeJohn said in an interview. “You ‘deal with’ a cold or a flu. Where’s the respect, the simple human decency?”

A spokeswoman from the Philadelphia VA office said the agency regrets its actions.

“The training provided was not intended to equate veterans with this character,” spokeswoman Marisa Prugsawan said in a statement. “It was intended to remind our employees to conduct themselves as courteously and professionally as possible when dealing with veterans and their concerns.”

She said the guide apparently was an old internal document that employees used to prepare for last week’s training session. Ms. Prugsawan said she didn’t know if the original references comparing veterans to Oscar the Grouch had been created locally or by the national VA office.

Mr. DeJohn said staffers were told that the same information was being used by other VA offices at town-hall meetings around the country. He said the “tone deaf” nature of the slide show highlights the problem that too many VA managers are not veterans themselves.

“The underlying issue is most of the management of the VA are not veterans,” he said. “They don’t have a clue to understanding veterans. If you gave more veterans opportunities, you wouldn’t have this kind of embarrassing publicity.”

Mr. DeJohn said he was contacted by Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary for benefits, who promised she would look into the matter.

Veterans groups reacted with disgust to the Oscar the Grouch theme.

“There is no time or place to make light of the current crisis that the VA is in,” Joe Davis, a national spokesman for the VFW, told the Inquirer. “And especially to insult the VA’s primary customer.”

On Tuesday at the annual American Legion convention, Mr. Obama outlined more steps to improve veterans’ health-care services in the wake of complaints about chronic delays and phony wait lists. Mr. Obama told veterans that the measures were part of his commitment in “standing up for your rights and dignity.”

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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