- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 31, 2015

Marine Corps veteran Richard Taylor doesn’t have a high opinion of the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I don’t think you could print it,” Mr. Taylor told a reporter while visiting the World War II Memorial on the National Mall on Saturday. “I have refused to even use the VA. My opinion is not good.”

Mr. Taylor, a resident of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of the Korean War, was part of a contingent of about 300 veterans from Pennsylvania visiting Washington on a bus trip organized by the nonprofit Honor Flight Foundation to see the memorials. Many of the veterans, especially those in their 90s who served in World War II, knew it was likely their last time to visit the nation’s capital together and share stories of their service.

Several of the aging veterans expressed disbelief over recent scandals at the Department of Veterans Affairs, an agency many of them depend on for health care and other benefits.

“It’s a shame,” Mr. Taylor said. “A number of my friends are not satisfied at all with the VA.”

Francis Di Santis, 92, an Army veteran from West Chester, Pennsylvania, said he has been frustrated with attempts to obtain lost service medals through the VA.

“It’s been over a year,” he said. “I still haven’t heard anything.”

But Mr. Di Santis, who served in the Pacific theater during World War II, did have praise for the agency’s health care services and its employees.

“They’re good, and they’re always telling me that they can’t do enough for me,” he said.

The VA announced last week that it is embarking on a “Summer of Service” campaign to find ways with local communities, the private sector and service organizations to support the agency’s commitment to care for veterans.

“We have made progress over the past year addressing the challenges we face in delivering care and benefits to millions of veterans and their families,” VA Secretary Robert McDonald said in a statement. “While there is more work to do to honor our sacred commitment to veterans, we also recognize that VA cannot do it alone. We are asking Americans everywhere to join the Summer of Service and help us give back to those who have given so much to our nation.”

As part of the campaign, the department will hold an open house at VA facilities during the week of June 28 “to spur increased local engagement and welcome members of the community interested in supporting the needs of veterans,” the agency said.

It’s not just World War II veterans who have concerns about the VA. A survey last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Washington Post found that about 60 percent of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan say the VA is doing an “only fair” or “poor” job.

Gestures vs. reforms

Christian DeJohn, an Army veteran and VA employee who has blown the whistle on mismanagement in the Philadelphia office, said the agency has been engaging in “symbolic gestures” but still fails to hold managers accountable for problems such as fraud and employee retaliation.

“I don’t see concrete reforms and improvements,” said Mr. DeJohn, who accompanied the older veterans as an “honor guardian” on the bus trip. “The key to changing the culture is to punish the wrongdoers, and we’re not seeing that in Philly. You can’t keep rewarding bad behavior.”

A government watchdog this spring said the Philadelphia VA office is among the worst in the nation, with lost records, a “toxic” work environment, slow responses to veterans’ benefits claims and a culture of reprisals against whistleblowers.

Many veterans also were shaking their heads about an inspector general’s report last week that criticized two senior VA managers in the Philadelphia VA office for compelling employees to attend a party where they paid for the services of a medium who claimed to speak with the dead.

“That is plain stupid,” Mr. Taylor said. “That’s almost as dumb as the GSA going to Vegas.”

Rep. Patrick Meehan, Pennsylvania Republican and a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the inspector general’s findings show that “the reports of misconduct at the Philadelphia VA have taken a turn for the surreal.”

“This is just the latest sign of poor leadership at the Philadelphia VA and a distraction from the office’s first and most important mission: serving our veterans and their families,” Mr. Meehan said in a statement.

As busloads of veterans, many using wheelchairs, toured the World War II Memorial last weekend, some of them spoke of how much they depend on the VA. Ray Benash, 88, a Marine Corps veteran from Pottstown, Pennsylvania, said he visits the VA facility in nearby Coatesville regularly for medical services and prescription medicines.

“I’m very well satisfied and pleased with their service,” Mr. Benash said, “very much so.”

Their visit naturally evoked memories of wartime service. Mr. Di Santis recalled his relief upon hearing in the Philippines in August 1945 that U.S. forces had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a move that he said halted plans for an invasion of the Japanese mainland.

“I was north of Manila when Truman dropped that bomb, and we were so glad,” he said. “That saved a lot of lives.”

As they entered the grounds of the National World War II Memorial, many veterans and their family members said they were thrilled to meet and pose for photographs with perhaps the most famous veteran of their era, former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. Mr. Dole, 91, said he greets veterans on the Mall every Saturday.

“You might shed a couple of tears,” Mr. Dole told a veteran who was about to see the memorial for the first time, “but that’s OK.”

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

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