KAHULUI - Amid of the recent scandal surrounding the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and subsequent resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last week, ongoing dissatisfaction with VA services on Maui also is coming to light.
U.S. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard visited the Valley Isle on Thursday as part of a statewide "Veterans Listening Tour" this week to see how veterans in Hawaii feel about their services. Most of the Maui veterans who spoke at the meeting held at Pomaikai Elementary School indicated that they were "fed up" with the hurdles they have to jump just to get their benefits.
"In 2007, I filed for my (VA) benefits," said veteran Ron Tamashiro. "I took all these tests. I didn't get any results or compensation, no nothing. Till today, I'm still waiting."
Veteran Ron Tamashiro shares his frustrations with the Department of Veterans Affairs during Thursday’s meeting at Pomaikai Elementary School. Looking on is U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
The Maui News / EILEEN CHAO photo
The Kahului resident served in the Vietnam War 40 years ago, but his DD Form 214, a critical document used by the VA to secure veteran benefits, had missing information about his deployment. For several years, Tamashiro filled out forms, took medical exams and talked to VA officials, a tiring and frustrating process for "(someone) like me."
"I not getting any younger," he said.
Other residents echoed Tamashiro's frustrations with trying to apply for and to receive medical care on Maui from the VA.
"My mom's 93, and we've been waiting three years to try to obtain VA pension benefits on behalf of my dad," said Kihei resident Paul Corarito. "To wait 24, 36 months to get a response is just terrible."
One veteran said that the system "is made up so veterans get frustrated and they quit" trying to obtain the benefits to which they are entitled.
"Our staff is always short on the medical side, what can you do to change this so we have a full staff not only from the VA system, but the local doctors and nurses who can do the job?" said Vietnam veteran Bernard Garcia, who lives in Haiku.
"Lots of Vietnam vets, World War II vets who died without their benefits, what can you do?" he asked. "I'm tired of hearing the same old stories."
Disgruntled residents also voiced lingering concerns about ID card renewals, eyeglass prescriptions, record-keeping and outreach.
One of the main concerns was that veterans on Maui, especially seniors who are not tech savvy, do not know how to properly apply for their benefits. Veterans said more outreach and information is needed, especially in the Neighbor Island communities where benefit counselors come only once a month.
Tracey Betts, VA director of the Honolulu regional office, said that the agency is trying to create more methods for people to get in touch with benefit counselors. One method is to create monthly workshops that a lot of people can participate in at the same time, instead of one-on-one interactions. A group of counselors would travel to the Neighbor Islands and host the workshop, Betts said.
The VA is also in the early stages of developing teleconferencing with benefit counselors; counselors will be able to answer questions via online videoconferencing.
"This is part of our effort to create more methods for you to get in touch with us until we get a facility here to put a full-time counselor," Betts said. "The reason we don't have a full-time benefits counselor here is because we don't have the dedicated space."
Last year, the VA approved $9.9 million to build a 15,000-square-foot veterans center on Maui. Currently, an estimated 2,000 Maui veterans rely on a community-based outpatient clinic run by the VA Pacific Islands Healthcare System.
For Andy Suzuki, whose son suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving two tours in Iraq, the shortcomings of the VA system only can be helped by a community effort.
"I quite frankly didn't know what to do, and the system wasn't there to help. The VA medicated him over and over again until one day he just didn't wake up," said Suzuki, about his son who died.
Suzuki, a veteran himself who served 10 years in the U.S. Air Force, also saw other young men who came back from the war with severe PTSD, who resorted to drugs, alcohol and violent behavior.
"Nobody is there to help them, so my wife and I decided we have to go out on our own and set up something to help these guys coming back. . . . Our family is extremely close so we brought everybody into our family and by doing that, we've been able to pull some of these guys from destructive behavior," he said.
"I think in Hawaii, the spirit of ohana is what you can do to bear against this problem. It's not 'what problem do I have with the VA?' It's 'what can I do as a citizen, as a veteran, to help those guys coming back?''' Suzuki said.
Gabbard agreed. She ended the meeting by saying, "We've got to figure out how to do things better." The freshman congresswoman agreed that wait times, both on the benefits and health care sides, is a problem that should've been resolved "yesterday, last year, a decade ago." But she also touted the power of Maui's close-knit community.
"This is our family, and it is personal for all of us," Gabbard said. "We have an incredible community here of veterans in Hawaii, and I know together we can figure out how collectively we can be stronger and continue to take care of each other, and to try to fix this not only for those of us in the room, not only for the most recent generation of veterans, but for those who will come after us.
"The support each of you provides to each other is priceless and has the opportunity to save lives."
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.