WAFF Investigates: Veterans Affairs transparency - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

WAFF Investigates: Veterans Affairs transparency


Around Veterans Day 2013, members of Congress demanded the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs better serve veterans.

Iraq Veteran Manuel Hernandez of Madison said his brush with death in Iraq stayed with him.

"You can imagine being a rag doll inside a dryer," he recalled, "and your body being tossed around inside my vehicle."

In Iraq in 2008 and 2009 with the army's 37th Infantry Division, Hernandez had his close call on July 4, 2008 when his convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device buried in a road. Since his return, he has battled with post traumatic stress.

"It took a very long time for me after I got back," Hernandez said. "Just from a door slamming to a car backfiring for me not to get to that hyper alert, really state of mind where I was panicking for no reason at all. It's like I was afraid and running from nothing."

The battles didn't end there. Hernandez has since struggled through a new fight to get answers and help, to which he's entitled, from the VA.

"Waiting on hold, waiting on hold," he said.  "Just to get questions answered, I would have to sit on the phone for at least, I would say, half of a good day, a good six to seven hours being put on hold."

"Unfortunately, there seems to be this brick wall that's been put up in front of us," agreed Florida Congressman Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, who complains that the VA has gone months, even more than a year, without answering questions from the committee – a committee specifically intended to provide oversight over the VA.

"Many of the questions that we ask are very simple questions that can be answered in just a couple of days and it's taken us weeks and months to get answers," Miller complained.

To publicize its problems getting answers, the committee has launched a website, Trials in Transparency, listing requests for information it has sent the VA, to which the VA hasn't responded. As of November, the site lists 111 such requests outstanding. Those inquiries include letters to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki asking about:

  • Bonuses given to VA administrators, even as their service centers deteriorated
  • The hacking of the VA's computer system, discovered in the spring of 2013, which compromised veterans' personal information
  • A deadly legionnaires' disease outbreak at a VA hospital revealed in the fall of 2012

Some of the requests, still unanswered, date back to June of 2012.

"When it became apparent that we weren't going to get it in 30 days or 60 days or six months or a year," Miller said, "it became very important for us to make sure that the public understands that we were not getting the answers that we were asking for."

Under questioning by the Committee, VA representatives did provide some answers.

"Unfortunately, sometimes the sheer volume of work that we receive impedes our ability to provide complete answers in a timely way," testified Joan Mooney, Department of Veterans Affairs Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Legislative Affairs in an appearance before the Committee in September.

"On more complicated requests that require interdepartmental concurrence or with our partners at Labor or Department of Defense, sometimes responses stake longer as that adds to the complexity," she continued.

"You can imagine, if the chairman of the VA committee in the U.S. House of Representatives can't get a question answered, how is a veteran or an individual out there going to be able to get questions answered?" asked Miller.

According to the Huntsville veterans advocacy group Still Serving Veterans, the VA bureaucracy can become near impenetrable for veterans, at a time when they need help and answers.

"We have people that come to us that are frustrated," said Still Serving Veterans Director William Koch. "The time between the time of filing a claim and actually getting a decision, sometimes that's up to two years. That is painful, particularly if it's a debilitating disability."

Hernandez said he hears a recurring message from those VA workers he does manage to reach.

"They basically apologize," he said. "They know that the system is flawed. They are very apologetic. They say, ‘I'm really sorry that you're having to deal with this. It's a flawed system.'"

The Department of Veterans Affairs sent a statement saying, "VA is committed to appropriate oversight of its activities and wise use of taxpayer dollars. VA will continue to respond to congressional requests for information with a focus on providing information that is accurate and timely."

"We can. We must. And we will do better," said Mooney in her appearance before Congress.

"I wish I could say that it was making a difference, but unfortunately I think they've gone deeper in a hole," fretted Miller.

Miller said he's now considering more aggressive steps to get answers from the VA, all the way up to subpoenaing VA officials to testify under oath and under threat of perjury, although he hopes it doesn't come to that.

"We will continue to keep the pressure on them," Miller said.

"Veterans stood up, said ‘I'll defend this country.' And we should take care of them," said Koch.

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