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january/february 2007

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BY BERNARD EDELMAN

At the behest of Puerto Rico State Council President Jorge Pedroza, President John Rowan visited the island commonwealth in early December on a fact-finding mission. Rowan said he needed to hear first-hand about the issues and problems of VVA members there. He wanted to seek answers to several questions: Is the VA Medical Center that serves the 200,000 veterans who live on the island and on neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands adequate? Will the national cemetery in Bayamon run out of burial space before new land is designated and prepped to expand its capacity?

On his first day in Puerto Rico, Rowan amplified the message that has been the philosophical foundation of his tenure as national president: VVA must do what the VA fundamentally fails to do, to reach out to veterans, especially the newest veterans of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq who have little or no interaction with the VA, and inform them of the health care and benefits to which they are entitled.

This was the focus of his message to the heads of New York State public employee unions, whose meeting in San Juan coincided with Rowan’s visit. In a brief address he urged them “to get more informed about veterans’ benefits and bring this information to your members.

“The VA and government agencies in New York are not going out of their way to tell veterans about the real estate tax exemption for which they are eligible,” Rowan said. “So we’ve got to do this. And a lot of our members have kids in Iraq, and they’re coming home in worse shape than most of our guys.”

From the Hilton El Caribe, where the New Yorkers were meeting, Rowan, accompanied by Francisco Muñiz III, a native of Puerto Rico and secretary of VVA’s New York State Council, made an unannounced drop-in at the VA Medical Center. It became quickly apparent that one of the chief complaints that Rowan would hear, that there is a dearth of parking at this aging facility, was all too real, a nightmare for most drivers who arrive any time after dawn.

Moving deliberately through the corridors, the group passed Room D-1115, the Veterans Support Center. This was “closed until further notice.” But “further notice never comes,” said Juan Heredia of VVA Chapter 59, a long-time friend of Muñiz’s (they had served in Vietnam together) who acted as tour guide. This seemed emblematic of the empty promises made by VA officials to veterans: While problems fester, any change for the better seems glacial.

The squad of visitors arrived at the director’s third floor office, “the dumpiest director’s office I’ve ever seen,” Rowan noted. Dr. Sandra Gracia-Lopez, the chief of staff and acting director, was welcoming and gracious, in stark contrast to her working environment. And she was open to Rowan’s queries.

Gracia noted that the VAMC serves 66,000 patients a year, who make some 700,000 visits. She acknowledged deficiencies in service. The physical plant, she said, needs a lot of work. “Several building projects are going on and being planned,” she said, and funding is a question mark. But because “we don’t have any more land,” she said, “parking will continue to be a problem.” The parking situation has caused some hospital employees “to come very early and sleep in their cars” before reporting for work, she added. Because public transportation is “limited and unreliable,” she said, “most patients travel by private vehicle.”

Four outpatient clinics help serve the island’s veteran population. The 10,000 or so veterans on neighboring St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands depend on outpatient care. In emergencies and for necessary specialized care, they are transported to the VAMC in San Juan. It’s hardly an ideal situation.

The scope and breadth of VVA members’ complaints were explored the next day. Following the laying of a wreath at the veterans’ monument in the capital complex honoring the island’s sons and daughters who had served and died in America’s wars, some three dozen VVA members met with Rowan.
He told them what he had seen at their VA Medical Center. Rowan hit on one of his major themes, that Vietnam veterans are getting sicker and dying younger of ailments that, he said, derive from their experiences in Southeast Asia. He took the VA to task for its inability or unwillingness to reach out to veterans and their families, and inform them of the benefits to which they are entitled.

Rowan also noted that the bottom line is money. The VA cannot give veterans their just rewards if it doesn’t have the funding it needs. And it is this issue, above all others, that is—as it has been for the past several years—VVA’s highest legislative priority: reforming the current means of funding to ensure the VA of a reliable, predictable, sustainable funding stream.

In his conversations with Rowan, Pedroza expanded on the idea of justice. Soldiers from the island have been fighting in the U.S. armed forces since at least World War I, when the island became an American territory and its residents became citizens.Though tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have served through the current war, because they hail from a territory and not a state they cannot vote for president, for their commander-in-chief, nor can they send a voting member to Congress. Is this second-class citizenship? Rowan postulated.

A visit to the island’s national cemetery the next day was revealing. While waiting to speak with Arleen Vincenty, assistant director of the facility, Rowan and entourage had to dodge the drips from leaks in the ceiling of the administration building. When they did sit down with Vincenty, she acknowledged that officials should have been looking to expand the cemetery ten years ago. But past is prologue, and they are planning to expand the capacity of the cemetery, in part through the construction of a columbarium and in part, if the efforts of the VA Central Office are successful, at a second cemetery site. The cemetery sees dozens of burials of veterans and their spouses every week.

Clearly there are problems that the veterans in Puerto Rico must overcome. Given their present status, they must find champions in Congress, and Rowan promised the veterans that VVA will reach out to the Hispanic caucus in Congress to get them to work “on behalf of their brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico.” VVA “will also insure that the leaders in the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees are aware of the situation in Puerto Rico and ask for their assistance in resolving these deficiencies,” Rowan said. “We will not allow the VA to ignore the plight of these veterans, for they are us.”

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