Area Vietnam vets unite, protest poor service at local VA clinic



"The latest saying is, 'We leave no veteran behind,' but I can tell you, we are being left behind all the time."

So Whittington went old school Monday morning - picketing with a poster in one hand and a large American flag in the other - when he camped out on the sidewalk along Montgomery Crossroad for three hours as motorists drove past the driveway that leads to the Savannah Veterans Administration clinic.

He was joined by a dozen veterans, mostly men who, like him, fought in Vietnam. The group gathered about 7 a.m., but quickly dispersed an hour earlier than planned after two Savannah-Chatham police squad cars and two sheriff's deputy vehicles arrived about 11 a.m.

Metro police said the Department of Defense had called asking for assistance with protestors. But when they went to the VA clinic, officials there did not know anything about the call for help. The VA clinic is a separate federal entity from nearby Hunter Army Airfield.

A spokesman with Fort Stewart/Hunter Army Airfield said the installation wouldn't have jurisdiction over protestors on the civilian side of the property and did not call police.

VA officials, when contacted by phone later Monday, said they were not aware of anyone calling law enforcement.

"I would have to find out," said Tonya Lobbestael, public affairs officer for the VA hospital in Charleston, S.C., which oversees the Savannah clinic.

A Savannah city official confirmed that while permits are not required, many groups planning protests secure them as a precautionary measure.



'Striving' to meet expectations, needs

At the same time, Lobbestael said the VA is always concerned about complaints.

"We certainly do strive to meet all our veterans' expectations and give the highest level of care at the medical center in Charleston and at our four outlying clinics," said Lobbestael. "And we do understand that sometimes there are opportunities for us to improve."

Lobbestael, who has been with the VA for the last five years, said this is the first protest by veterans she has heard of in her district.

Although it isn't unusual.

Across the U.S., veterans have gathered in recent months to protest everything from preserving funding for programs focused on helping veterans heal from psychological war injuries in Austin, Texas, to complaints about overall poor customer service at facilities in Los Angeles.



Tired of 'broken promises'

For Whittington, it's been a challenge to obtain VA services since he left the Army in September 1971, three years after joining the Army and getting shipped off to the jungles of Vietnam.

In those four decades, Whittington said he has seen his share of strife with the federal bureaucracy tasked with meeting the needs of America's veteran population - from fighting for 12 years to get a clerical error on his discharge papers fixed so he could receive medical disability benefits to spending five years on the streets of Washington, D.C., disillusioned by broken promises.

His latest battlefront: Getting the VA to provide medical care for a back injury he sustained in Vietnam and getting enrolled in a vocational rehabilitation program.

"The doc says there's a 60 percent chance of success in the operational procedure," Whittington said. "I have better odds winning the lottery."

After so many years feeling like the VA has broken its promises to veterans, Whittington said he has a hard time trusting the doctors who he views - at least in part - as the ones obstructing much of his care.

"I finally got transferred to the VA clinic in Dublin," Whittington said.

It was a move he said was prompted by an incident last year when he arrived at the clinic in Savannah for back pain, only to be turned away. He ended up in the hospital emergency room the next day, but had to pay for the treatment out of pocket.

"It's hard to get money out of the VA anymore," he said.

Lobbestael, meanwhile, said she welcomes the chance to speak with Whittington.

"We look forward to working with this group ... to see what their expectations are and meet their needs in a timely fashion," she said.

Lobbestael did, however, note that both the Charleston hospital and its four clinics - which includes the Savannah facility - come highly rated by the VA.

"We have to meet 150 performance measures, both at the medical center and the clinics," she said. "And we are meeting all those performance measures. As good as that may be, our goal is to have every veteran satisfied with every center."

She welcomed Whittington to contact the clinic and the medical center to further explain his concerns.

"We're always more than glad to work with all our veterans and look forward to the opportunity to do so," Lobbestael said.


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