at meeting say VA ducking questions
December 22, 2004
L. REED Staff Reporter
Dozens of disabled veterans testifying before a City Council committee
Tuesday said they are furious the Chicago Veterans Affairs office has
not answered why Illinois veterans for decades have received some of
the lowest disability payments in the nation.
"We need to tell Mr. Olson that he works for us. Where does he
get off not answering our questions?" said Richard Lesniewicz,
referring to Michael Olson, director of the VA's Chicago office.
About 150 veterans in the council chambers cheered and hollered as Lesniewicz,
a Gulf War veteran who wore desert fatigues, gave an impassioned plea
for veterans to band together to challenge the local VA administration.
"We have been far too quiet. We haven't acted up," Lesniewicz
said. Then, citing Thomas Jefferson, he added: "A little revolution
doesn't hurt anybody."
Lesniewicz was among about 40 veteransages 22 to 85who testified
Tuesday about the years they have spent trying to get disability pay
from the VA regional office in Chicago. Several veterans broke down
as they detailed decades of denialsincluding one man who said
he feared he'd end up killing himself before the VA gave him the money
Others described lonely, desperate fights to get VA doctors to diagnose
mysterious ailments and then get disability raters to admit their diseases
were related to military servicefrom chemical agents used in combat,
for example, or experimental vaccines given to veterans.
Some of the most disturbing testimony came from Korean War veteran George
Baxter, 74, who was a prisoner of war. Baxter was shot twice, his right
leg was amputated and his left leg was deformed by repeated military
surgeries to repair severe frostbite he suffered in the mountains of
In 1958, Baxter received a 60 percent disability rating. But it wasn't
until 2002 Baxter was rated 100 percentgranting him full benefits.
Part of Baxter's challenge was that VA raters kept insisting that Baxter's
mangled left foot was a genetic deformity.
"I never got to meet with a rater," Baxter told the committee.
"You don't get a chance to say: 'That's a lie, sir.' "
Other veterans advocated better training for disability raters, who
are largely instructed by senior raters in the regional office.
One former VA employee demanded that the VA's inspector generalwho
is reviewing the entire disability system as a result of a Sun-Times
investigationlook at the regional office's racial makeup.
Past racial discrimination at the Chicago VA office, she said, may have
contributed to the low ratings received by Illinois veterans.
"I'm not trying to embarrass the VA. But years ago there was a
racial discrimination lawsuit. There were no minorities on the ratings
board," said Rochelle Crump, assistant director at the Illinois
Veterans Affairs Department, referring to a class-action discrimination
lawsuit she said was filed in the late 1970s. "I do believe that
should be part of what they are investigating."
Crump, who is black and worked at the Chicago VA office from 1975 to
1996, said that until the lawsuit the ratings board consisted of only
VA officials both in Chicago and at the headquarters in Washington refused
to say what the racial makeup of the ratings board is today. According
to the 2000 census, 17 percent of Illinois veterans are minorities.
Olson, who refused to attend the City Council hearings, had asked that
any questions raised be put to him in writing. Olson was not in his
office Tuesday afternoon, but Assistant Director Richard Braley said:
"The whole disability rating thing is under review by the [inspector
general]. At this point, I think it would be premature to comment on
anything until we find out what they are looking at."
Contributing: Art Golab
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