Under the headline “A Storm is Brewing,” the May issue of The American Legion Magazine contains an interview with National Commander Ronald F. Conley, an Air Force veteran and pipe fitter from Pittsburgh.

“We have a veterans’ health care crisis in our country right now,” says Conley. The Legion, under a program entitled “I am not a number,” invited veterans to submit their experiences with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system. Thousands responded, many testifying that they have waited months, even one and two years, to see a doctor. Ernesto A. Tafoya has been waiting more than two and a half years for an appointment, even though he was listed as 100 percent disabled at time of discharge.

Tammy McNair-Waller is still waiting after a year with a long list of medical problems she assumes are Gulf War Syndrome related. Milton Smith, with a 20 percent VA disability, hasn’t had an appointment with a doctor since April 2002.

Conley states, “We used to have one VA. Now we have 21 VAs.” The system has been carved up into 21 sub-districts, all under-funded and understaffed. “We need to go back to just one uniform VA health care system,” says Conley.

Veterans have been classified into various categories, depending on their ability to prove their illnesses and/or disabilities are service-related. Individuals are forced to prove on their own that military service caused their medical problems, and have to deal with a complicated system of agencies woefully understaffed to address individual problems. The result is hundreds of thousands of veterans on the waiting lists and additional hundreds of thousands who have given up. Many have died waiting.

“No veteran should ever have to believe VA is simply waiting for him or her to die,” says Conley.

The Cleveland AFL-CIO Retiree Council, representing many local union retiree clubs, is aware that the general public is completely unaware of the VA health care crisis. The Council, with veterans in leadership of many affiliated retiree clubs, feels that the lack of care for veterans is an important part of the overall national health care crisis. The Council feels the situation needs a lot more publicity, and is planning a news conference at a VA hospital.

Council President Richard Henderson, an Ironworker and himself a WWII and Korean War vet, says, “It’s unconscionable that hundreds of thousands of veterans are being denied health care. Our young men and women are sent off to war only to return to a health care system that’s falling apart. The President and Congress were in a great rush to send them into Iraq but seem to be turning a deaf ear to caring for them when they return.”

The author can be reached at wallyk@ncweb.com