Veterans crisis center comes to St. Louis

Associated PressJuly 15, 2014 

— Veteran Eugene Washington spent several years during the Vietnam War on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. Now he just wants the government to honor its promise to provide for him when he can no longer fully care for himself.

"They should do more. They're supposed to do more," Washington, 63, said Tuesday while waiting in line at a temporary "crisis command center" set up by The American Legion at the Saint Louis University law school downtown. "As far as I'm concerned, the government should give of itself until it hurts."

The veteran's organization came to St. Louis after earlier stops in El Paso, Texas; Fayetteville, North Carolina; and Phoenix, where the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs has confirmed that at least 35 veterans died while awaiting appointments at area VA medical facilities.

The long delays for veterans seeking medical care at VA hospitals nationwide prompted The American Legion to mobilize its System Worth Saving Task Force to help former soldiers better navigate the federal bureaucracy, whether through expedited doctor's appointments or streamlined applications for disability.

Some at the SLU law school wore knee braces. Others walked with limps, or used wheelchairs. Each seemed have a personal story about dealing with the VA system.

"It's totally unacceptable," said crisis center organizer Verna Jones, the organization's director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation. "They sacrifice with blood, sweat and tears. ... And then they wait in line."

A recent federal audit found that nearly 1,400 patients who sought appointments through the VA medical center in St. Louis over the past decade were never seen. The St. Louis center had the sixth-longest average wait time — nearly three months — nationwide for new patients seeking specialty care.

The agency has responded that it was working to reduce wait times, and Jones and others in the American Legion delegation met earlier Tuesday with the acting director of the John Cochran VA Medical Center. Jones said she made it clear that veterans want results, not rhetoric.

"We don't want to talk anymore," she said. "It's time to show us."

Army veteran Gregory Starks, 52, came to the crisis center seeking help to schedule surgery for a broken leg that has left him unable to work as a private security guard. The former military police officer said he was given a walking boot when initially injured earlier this year and told, "Don't call us, we'll call you."

"They never called me back," he said. "That was six months ago."

The temporary help center remains open until Friday, with daily hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Thursday and 8 a.m. until noon on Friday. According to Jones, additional crisis clinics will soon open in Maryland, West Virginia, Hawaii and other locations. She said the veterans group will then work with the VA to replicate that effort at smaller help centers in other communities, including possible Missouri locations such as Columbia, Poplar Bluff and Kansas City.

Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/azagier

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