VA chief touts S. Side shelter
April 23, 2005

BY CHERYL L. REED Staff Reporter

Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson came to the South Side on Friday to tout a Catholic Charities veterans shelter as an example of President Bush's faith-based initiatives, but he never mentioned the Chicago VA's problems.

Before a crowd of hundreds, including dozens of veterans, Nicholson, the former ambassador to the Vatican, quoted Scripture and delivered an eloquent speech comparing homeless veterans to the parable of the stranger at the door.

"While they once survived the ravages of battlefield, they now survive the trauma of the streets," Nicholson said of the nation's 200,000 homeless veterans, about 18,000 of whom live in the Chicago area. "They have not and will not be abandoned by the Department of Veterans Affairs."

'Not even a slight mention'

But many veterans in the audience said they feel abandoned by the VA and were disappointed that Nicholson didn't address the Chicago VA's host of problems: disability payments that, on average, have been among the worst in the nation for seven decades; a VA survey that rated Chicago the worst regional office in the country last year, and a lag time in claims processing that has Illinois veterans waiting on average seven months for a decision.

"He could have at least commented about something coming down the pike," said William Schmutz, director of the Advisory Council on Veterans for Mayor Daley. "But not even a slight mention. That's going to disappoint a lot of veterans."

Against the din of protesting construction workers who want jobs building the new shelter, Nicholson told reporters he couldn't promise to make an inspector general's report available before he returns to Chicago on May 20 for a groundbreaking on a new unit at Hines VA Hospital.

The report details the agency's investigation of disability pay disparity. It was initiated in December after a series of Chicago Sun-Times stories revealed that Illinois' wounded veterans have been receiving among the lowest disability payments in the country since 1934.

Citing the investigation's complexities, Nicholson refused to detail what the agency found.

About the only time Nicholson had Friday to speak to veterans was while he walked up to the stage set up under a tent on what had been the parking lot of the St. Leo the Great parish.

Harvey Myers, a combat infantry Marine who served in Vietnam and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, pressed Nicholson about problems in the Chicago VA office.

'A study isn't going to help us'

"The regional office is so slow. Are you working on anything that would speed up the process?" Myers quizzed the secretary.

"We've got a great system, including Illinois. They're working hard," Nicholson said.

"The veterans' disability in Illinois, though, is so low," Myers insisted.

"Yeah, we're studying that," Nicholson told him.

"But what can be done immediately? What plans do you have? Tell us something. You say a study. A study isn't going to help us."

The VA is putting up $4.9 million of the $21 million Catholic Charities project that will provide 141 studio apartments for homeless veterans and a VA outpatient clinic.

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