Vets at meeting say VA ducking questions
December 22, 2004

BY CHERYL 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 veterans—ages 22 to 85—who 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 denials—including one man who said he feared he'd end up killing himself before the VA gave him the money he needed.

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 service—from chemical agents used in combat, for example, or experimental vaccines given to veterans.

Disturbing testimony

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 Korea.

In 1958, Baxter received a 60 percent disability rating. But it wasn't until 2002 Baxter was rated 100 percent—granting 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 general—who is reviewing the entire disability system as a result of a Sun-Times investigation—look 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 white males.

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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