Town-Hall Meeting After-Action Report
BY JERRY A. KLEIN
The Veterans Disability Commission
met in St. Petersburg, Florida, in a Town Hall format to listen to
the concerns of the veterans’ community. The meeting was conducted
over two days. The entire 15-member commission was present. The
first session began with the chair making brief remarks explaining
the mission and purpose of the commission. The executive director
then explained the process the commission would undertake to
complete its mission.
The main focus of the commission
was to listen to the public. The public-comment session lasted
ninety minutes. The hearing room was packed because the word had
reached the veterans’ community in the St. Petersburg-Tampa area.
Veterans from across the state also were in attendance.
In advance of the meeting, Craig
Tonjes, the Florida State Council president, sent a letter to all
veterans’ organizations, apprising them of the importance of
showing up at the commission sessions. I also contacted the local
VVA chapters to insure that VVA and interested veterans were in
attendance. The early warning worked.
The Town Hall process doesn’t leave
individuals much time to state a point of concern. Most presenters
didn’t have a clear understanding of the purpose for which the
commission was formed and presented remarks that were not germane.
Many of the presenters expressed a feeling that the commission was
created for the purpose of finding ways to reduce or eliminate
The chair addressed that perception
when he stated that it was not the intention of the commission to
reduce or eliminate benefits. However, I am not sure the statement
convinced anyone in the meeting room.
The statement prepared by David
Houppert, VVA’s director of Veterans Benefits, was entered into
the record. Craig Tonjes and Tom Hall, the Florida State Council
treasurer, also addressed the commission.
Fewer veterans attended the second
session. Yet, some veterans who had just heard about the
commission through the local media showed up. The structure for
the second day was even more restrictive. After opening remarks,
the executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans
Affairs, Col. Rocky McPherson, spoke. He mentioned the concern
that the Veterans Benefits Administration in Bay Pines showed a
reduction of staff in the Regional Office, but he could not
provide an explanation. The new regional office director did not
have an explanation, either.
The chief of the Tampa VA Hospital
Poly Trauma Rehabilitation Center, Steven G. Scott, described the
workings of the Trauma Center. He went into great detail about how
they care for seriously injured service members. The process of
analysis and evaluation of injuries covering all aspects from
initial diagnosis to secondary and tertiary issues, including the
issue of pain, was explored. Commission members asked about the
relationship between pain and rating for disability purposes.
Donald Ivers, the former Regional
Office Director in St. Petersburg, explained the theory used by
the VA to incorporate the issue of pain into current ratings. The
issue of PTSD versus blast syndrome was discussed since many of
the symptoms are similar for each and could be misdiagnosed.
The public comment period was even
shorter than it was the previous evening. It was during that
session that I presented a brief version of my prepared testimony.
Also in attendance at the morning session was the former Director
of the St. Petersburg VA Regional Office, Donald Ivers, and the
former Under Secretary for Veterans Benefits, John Vogel.
The commission will visit seven
additional areas of the country. Preparation prior to appearing
before the commission is very important. Since each individual
only has five minutes to speak, targeted brief remarks are needed.
Issues should be broken up into
individual, short presentations so more territory can be covered.
This will require more VVA members to attend these meetings.
Turnout is important.
During the evening session, I had a
chance meeting with one of the commission staff members, a friend
of almost 20 years, Jackie Garrick. She is a veteran, a social
worker, and previously she worked for the American Legion. Garrick
mentioned that she would attend the commission hearings in Boston
I also had an opportunity to talk
with Joe Wynn, a member of the commission. Craig Tonjes, Tom Hall,
and I also spoke to Butch Joeckel, another commission member.
Many questions persist, and we
still don’t know for sure what recommendations will be made to the
President and Congress. The overbearing presence of VA personnel
and the reliance on the IOM and the Center for Naval Analysis make
me nervous. So does the number of high-ranking retired military