A listening session held Thursday night in Wasilla by the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs was dominated by complaints about the healthcare system for veterans in Alaska.
Hundreds of people turned out to hear remarks by Secretary Robert McDonald, who gave an overview of the massive problems that have hampered the VA’s service in recent years.
“Obviously the Department of Veterans Affairs had a crisis,” McDonald said. “The primary reason, as I looked at this situation, was the aging of the American Veteran population.”
McDonald detailed how a lack of funding from Congress is limiting the VA’s ability to accommodate more veterans in need of care, and more necessary medical treatment as problems like post-traumatic stress and exposure to Agent Orange gain more scientific recognition.
But testimony from dozens of people who lined up to speak was overwhelmingly critical of the VA, filled with stories of personal problems and mistreatment navigating the system–some stretching back decades.
James Perkins, a recent vet from the 10th Mountain Division who drove up from the Kenai Peninsula, said that in spite of efforts at overhauling the system, healthcare shortages are reaping an enormous cost across Alaska and the country.
“I’ve lost over six brothers that I’ve served with in less than a year to suicide. And I’ve almost been a victim of veteran suicide myself,” Perkins said from a microphone in the audience. “The struggle is real.”
As Secretary McDonald listened, he would periodically refer people to VA staffers set up at tables in the back of the event, meant to connect veterans with service providers. Scott Harrison is a Marine Corp vet, and doesn’t expect any one person to solve all his health issues, but believes the frustration for many is not being able to get plugged in properly to the benefits they’re entitled to.
“I think people are emotional on all this, and I think maybe people are maybe trying to blame the secretary or hold him to task,” Harrison said before pausing to add, “The man’s doing a job.”]
The Secretary’s visit also included trips to Kotzebue and Point Hope earlier in the week.