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Veterans fair aims to boost service in wake of scandal

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Scio Township — Paul Jingozian was what they called a “tunnel rat” during his time in Vietnam — part of a generation of soldiers who often went unsupported and unappreciated in an era when the phrase “Support the Troops” wasn’t en vogue.

These days he can be found volunteering as part of the Buddy to Buddy program, which pairs veterans in need with other veterans willing to help. Military families can get assistance for everything from finances to emotional difficulties.

It’s a program Jingozian takes great pride in, but it’s the kind of support he and those he served with never had.

“No, no,” he said Friday, while manning the Buddy to Buddy table at a veterans fair in Scio Township. “We had nothing like this.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers a host of services aimed at dealing with the financial, physical and emotional needs of its former military personnel. Recently, however, the department’s image has been tarnished by a scandal over long waits for medical care and records that were falsified to cover up the delays.

Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson told Congress that VA health care sites experienced a 10.5 percent increase in workload for the one-year period since the scandal erupted in April 2014.

On Friday, U.S. Reps. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, and Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, hosted the veterans fair and spoke about the work that’s been done to fix the department, as well as the work that is still needed.

Walberg described progress as “inadequate.”

“It still comes down to bureaucracy,” he said. “... One in three veterans on the waiting list for care die before receiving care — that hasn’t changed.”

At the height of Veterans Affairs problems, Walberg said Congress empowered the president to make faster personnel decisions at the leadership level. Administrators who did not produce the desired level of service would, theoretically, be removed more quickly.

But so far, that has not produced the across-the-board improvement many had wanted, he said.

“Hopefully there will be more of a push that comes from the administration on it,” Walberg said. “It’s a big system. It’s cumbersome. It had all good intentions when it was formed. But it’s overgrown.”

Jack Clayton knows first-hand the frustration of attempting to get medical help through Veterans Affairs. He was stationed in Korea with the Army during the Vietnam era, and as a retiree he has been frustrated by the hoops he has to jump through to get help.

“It’s almost overwhelming,” the Dexter resident said Friday. “I know they’re trying. But I’d prefer if we were able to pay a stipend sometimes and get what we need from our local hospitals sometimes.”

Clayton came to the fair at the Scio Township office to see what sort of programs were available for local veterans. Groups represented Friday ran the gamut, from government agencies to the American Legion to Jingozian’s Buddy to Buddy program.

Representatives of Michigan Operation Freedom Outdoors set up shop in one corner. The public-private partnership works to give wounded veterans the opportunity for outdoor recreation.

Not every veteran who visited had a negative take on the Department of Veterans Affairs. Ann Arbor resident Bill Levliet is a Navy veteran.

‘My experience with the VA has always been great,” he said.

That’s something Dingell would like to hear more often. The name of her husband and predecessor as congressman, John Dingell, is on the VA hospital in Detroit. Working with veterans and their families has been a part of her life for decades, she said.

“You shouldn’t have to call your congressmen to get something done,” she said.

jlynch@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2034