EVERGREEN – At the Veterans Food Pantry, the shelves sag under the weight of canned goods, and the back room has a mountain of donated clothes waiting to be sorted.
It looks like a lot, both the amount of food and clothes, but founder Allen Erickson knows it’s unwise to assume it will last.
“We’ll go through it all,” he said, walking among the shelves.
The food pantry and clothing thrift store serve the struggling veteran population in the Flathead; it’s a place they can come and recharge, feel safe and engage with others who understand what they’ve been through.
Erickson is a veteran himself, having served in the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam era, and is also a veteran of trying to navigate the country’s Veterans Affairs system. Now almost 75 years old, Erickson is fighting lymphoma, which he believes was caused by his exposure to Agent Orange while stationed in Guam.
He’s been dealing with the VA for 34 years, trying to get them to acknowledge responsibility for his illness.
“The issue is, you gave me this disease, and you say you didn’t, and I proved you did and you won’t do anything to correct yourself,” Erickson said. “They don’t come right out and call you a liar. It’s very frustrating. There are times when I’ve been so sick that I can’t even move because they used that garbage.”
“And I’m not the only one,” he added.
The country’s Department of Veterans Affairs system is in deep turmoil. A recent report from the VA inspector general shined a light on the broad and deeply rooted problems with long wait times, delays in patient care and manipulation of waiting lists throughout the entire VA health care system, which serves about 6.5 million veterans annually.
In May, Richard Griffin, the agency’s acting inspector general, informed the U.S. Senate that his investigation found 17 veterans had died while on the waiting list in Phoenix, and the average wait time for these veterans to get care was 115 days.
The scandal resulting from the inspector general’s investigation brought about the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on May 30, and on June 6, the Associated Press reported that an additional 18 veterans whose names were kept off an official electronic VA appointment list have died.
These 18 veterans were among 1,700 veterans identified in a report as being “at risk of being lost or forgotten.”
In Montana, VA director Christine Gregory announced she would retire at the end of June, having spent 16 months on the job. So far, Veterans Affairs Montana Health Care System officials have remained quiet about the timing of her departure.
But according to an audit released by the VA on June 9, the average time a veteran in Montana waits for his or her first appointment with a primary care physician is 48 days, more than three times the 14-day goal.
The same audit showed more than 57,000 veterans across the country have been waiting for up to three months for their first visit with a doctor.
As the national scandal continues to unfold, Montana’s congressional delegation has expressed its disappointment over the state of the VA.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee since 2007, announced June 1 that he remains an active part of an emerging bill that would strengthen the role of the VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector, making their reports public. The Senate Veteran Affairs Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders, of Vermont, introduced the bill, called the Restoring Veterans’ Trust Act.
During an interview, Tester said he would like to see prosecutions in cases of intentional misconduct in the VA.
“We’re putting some money toward the inspector general; there’s been a lot of allegations, we need to find out what the facts are,” Tester said. “We’re also supporting language that if there’s criminal wrongdoing, to have the Department of Justice step up. If people kept veterans out intentionally, they need to pay the price.”
Tester also announced a listening tour of Montana, where he will sit with local veterans as they discuss their issues and the problems they’ve seen in the state. The tour will start in Anaconda on June 14, and Tester said there would be a stop in Kalispell, though he wasn’t sure when.
“Montana’s veterans don’t mince words, they don’t candy-coat,” Tester said. “(These sessions) really allow us to get the straight, clear information.”
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Montana had over 101,000 veterans living here as of September 2013, with more than 77,000 of them having served in wartime.
Montana has one of the highest rates of veterans per capita in the country, with veterans making up more than 10 percent of the state population. The VA estimates more than 9,300 veterans live in Flathead County.
One of the issues brought to the fore in the latest VA scandal is the sheer amount of veterans coming back from combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is estimated about 2.5 million men and women served in those two wars, most of them making multiple tours.
The current system is not equipped to handle these veterans and the problems they’re returning home with, Erickson said, especially the mental health issues stemming from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
“You’re working in the 21st century with a 19th-century mindset,” he said.
Since he interacts with so many veterans at the food pantry, Erickson works closely with the local VA outpatient clinic in Kalispell. He believes the staff there are highly capable and dedicated. (Requests for information or comment from the Kalispell clinic were referred to the state VA office.)
“We’ve got some awesome people at the clinic,” he said. “I just don’t like the whole system.”
Erickson joined the U.S. Navy when he was 17 years old, in January 1957. His mother had to sign off on his enlistment because he was under 18. Erickson worked intercommunications on ships, with the rank of IC3. He served in the Pacific, trained with the U.S. Marines in the jungles of Guam, and ensured ships were headed in the correct direction and had communications.
“When I went into the service, I was ready to die for my country,” Erickson said. “I was raised to not be afraid and to use my brain.”
He received his final discharge from the Navy in 1963, without seeing any combat. But during his time stationed on Guam, he remembers the trucks that would spray the roads and the sides of the roads with Agent Orange, an herbicide and defoliant used during the Vietnam War.
Erickson continued life after enlistment, settling in the Flathead Valley with his wife, Linda, and raising their children. They started the Northwest Montana Veterans Stand Down and Food Pantry in their backyard, and it eventually expanded to its current building in 2011.
The new goal is a 50-unit housing development for homeless veterans, Erickson said, where they would have a familiar cohort and access to veteran assistance, including — and especially — mental health programs.
Erickson’s lymphoma was dormant for several years, but has come back. He visits the VA outpatient clinic in Spokane 12 to 14 times a year for treatment, and has chosen to forgo chemotherapy because he’s seen how it affects a body and doesn’t want to be bedridden.
He’s too busy to be stuck in bed, he said, and there’s more to do. The pantry recently received a $26,000 to install a walk-in refrigerator, and summer is a busy time. There aren’t enough volunteers, he said, and there’s not enough funding to hire on permanent employees.
The future of the VA system is now a main topic of conversation in Congress.
Upon Shinseki’s resignation, Montana’s congressional delegation sent out indignant statements about the treatment of veterans. Sen. John Walsh, a National Guard veteran, said deep changes are needed in the future, but there are also issues that need to be dealt with now.
“We need to make sweeping changes to the VA to strengthen services for the long term, but this is an immediate step to address the urgent issue of a growing backlog and increased waiting periods,” Walsh said. “We must live up to the promises we made to our veterans when they answered the call of duty.”
Walsh also announced June 9 that he is seeking to start the Commission for Care, which would “conduct an independent, bipartisan topline review of the nation’s VA facilities and provide in-depth recommendations to Congress and the President for immediate action and legislation needed to address the failings of the VA.”
Rep. Steve Daines said Shinseki’s resignation is the first step toward more accountability in the VA system.
“We’ve asked a lot of our veterans, and owe a great deal to them in return,” Daines said. “They simply have not been getting the care they deserve from the current system that is bogged down by bureaucracy and a failure of leadership.”
The Restoring Veterans’ Trust Act is one step toward getting the VA in order, Tester said, and he expects more resources for the agency, including student loan forgiveness for future staff.
As far as Erickson is concerned, the change needs to come from the White House, but he doesn’t expect it from the current administration.
At the Veterans Food Pantry, politics are set aside, along with religious differences or any other outside factor that could detract from taking care of the veterans.
Erickson, along with a service officer, try to get the veterans they meet the help they need to move on in their lives. That is the goal, and that’s what needs to be happening despite politics, he said.
“We’re here to help each other,” Erickson said.
Food donations are always needed at the Northwest Montana Veterans Food Pantry, located at 1349 U.S. Highway 2 E. in Evergreen, and anyone willing to volunteer their time can call 406-756-7304 or visit www.veteransfoodpantry.org.
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