Thursday, August 23, 2018

Betraying A Sacred Trust

Daniel Cano
WLA VA, one showcase bldg. to serve vets in need
     I drive through the south gate, the original entrance, of the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration and hospital, circa 1870, its first patients Civil War veterans struggling with psychosis from combat, PTSD, today. The words on the columns “National Soldiers Home” are welcoming. Golden twin eagles, the national symbol, stand as reminders our sacrifice in defense of this country is not forgotten. Though, we all know it is.
     One LA Times reporter, when once asked to write an article exposing VA incompetence, said, “Veterans’ issues are boring.” Less than 2% of the American public fight this county’s wars. Most Americans prefer to avoid such an inconvenience. They feel they’ve done their duty by cheering the military honor guard at professional sporting events, becoming righteously indignant at professional athletes who “take a knee,” or they spout the mindless but ubiquitous “Thank you for you service,” which I take to mean, “Better you than me.”
     When I first came to the Soldiers Home for treatment in 1969, rolling hills, trees, shrubs and dirt walkways greeted me, a sacred place for physically and emotionally damaged veterans to heal. Today, that has changed as the government and high-level V.A. administrators consider profit over sacrifice, real estate deals over rehabilitation.
1800s architectural gem crumbling
     The WLA Veterans Administration, or the National Soldiers Home for those who remember the original name, is situated between Brentwood and Westwood, just west of Bel-Air, some of the most expensive property in the United States. Since the 1970s, developers have eyed these 366 acres, more than once, trying to quietly evict veterans in favor of a new cinema complex, condos, stores, and restaurants. Both veterans and neighborhood groups fought the intrusion. Some VA administrators, past and present, supported by both Democratic and Republican administrations in Washington, have tried bowing to the gods of commerce by decreasing veterans' services, allowing outside organizations to move onto the land, watching as buildings fell into disrepair, and secretly leasing land and buildings to non-veteran entities, like an elite private school, UCLA, and various Hollywood businesses and transportation companies. The long-term plan: to carve up the land, ignoring the original deed, which called for the government to use the donated land solely for the rehabilitation of U.S. military veterans. 
Veterans locked out of athletic field taken over by elite private high school
      Just like so many broken treaties with American native people, the government sees no betrayal in ignoring legal treaties, or what veterans refer to as a sacred trust. Under euphemisms, such as Master Plan and CARES, some in Washington push for the dismantling of Veterans Administrations across the country, starting with the largest west of the Mississippi, the WLA Veterans Administration. The current administration is floating the idea of giving vets healthcare cards to be redeemed by participating healthcare programs, kind of like medical welfare.
     When the VA administration began leasing parcels of land designated for veterans’ recuperation and rehabilitation, it found an effective way to begin shattering the system. Under the eye of Veterans Service Organizations and the public, the VA, using legislators and wealthy supporters as muscle, allowed the coyotes in. One might argue: isn't raising money a good thing? Yet, when asked for an accounting, VA administrators, at the time, remained mum. No one knew the answer.
     It’s rumored the elite private high school adjacent to the veterans land originally paid $1 a year to build an athletic complex, evicting veterans who used the open fields for physical therapy, like playing soccer, football, softball, in addition to holding concerts and weekend cookouts. Who approved these sweetheart deals? It could not have been authorized without the approval of local congressional leaders, VA administrators, and the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington. In which rabbit hole did the money disappear? Who knows? If a trillion dollars can disappear from the Department of Defense's budget, without questions from legislators or the public, how much easier to lose veterans' money?
     The government and the VA claim veterans' care too expensive, yet nobody will answer anything about the leases or the funds generated.
VA administration allows history to waste away
     To the west, a forest of eucalyptus trees once formed a perimeter, separating the busy world outside the Soldiers Home from the sedate world within. Who gave the order to fell those trees? No
bureaucrat ever admitted to signing the work order.
     Just past the entrance, where long grassy knolls once filled the landscape, I pass the Red Cross complex, an important organization but having no connection to the military whatsoever or to veterans or their rehabilitation. Across the street is a large parking lot where local car dealership and bus companies once parked their vehicles. Only after veterans complained, walked along Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards in protest, and filed a legal suit with the help of the ACLU, did the VA evict the usurpers. Who thought it was a good idea to lease veterans’ land to a commercial bus company, and how much money was raised? Veterans who have asked VA administrators questions about leases and money earned were usually ignored, or considered disgruntled, thankless vets.
     I first sought help at the Soldiers Home for a wound I received during a night of chaos, as howitzers fired shells into the darkness, flares attached to small parachutes lit up the sky, slowly descending, my friends firing M-16s and throwing grenades wildly into shadows. Shrapnel from a grenade found its way into my arm, pierced the flesh, and came to rest near the bone, where a doctor at the Plieku Field Hospital advised against operating, fearing he might permanently damage my arm by accidentally severing nerves and muscles to get at the wayward intruder.
1980s, Outpatient Treatment Center for vets afflicted by PTSD; today, all weeds, no patients
     "A lot of people live with injuries like yours. When You get home,” the doctor told me, “just get to a V.A. hospital and have them check up on it every so often. It could have been worse. A few inches higher and they might’ve gotten you in the head.”
     I was in no position to complain. The kid in the bed next to me had both legs amputated below the knees. Across from me, a North Vietnamese soldier lay in bed, his chest exposed, a long, thick incision ran from his neck to his belly. We exchanged glances throughout the day. He didn’t look angry, just hurt like the rest of us. I didn’t know our doctors treated enemy soldiers and let them recuperate beside us. I didn’t hold any animosity towards him. He was just another guy.
Waterfall, a natural place for reflection and rehabilitation
     A sense of calm comes over me as I drive farther into the VA complex, land many veterans hold sacred. I nod to the veterans I pass or meet in the hospital’s waiting room. Conversation flows easily; after all, we share a bond few other people experience, especially those who served in a combat zone.
     It’s strange. I look beyond the gray hair, wrinkles, missing limbs, walkers, and I see youngsters, strong, vibrant, and healthy, again, dressed in olive drab, spit shined boots, carrying ruck sacks, and weapons, or sitting around in groups telling our life stories. It’s like we were all 19 again.
     So, now, when I hear rumors the government is planning to shut the place down, even with all its reported inefficiencies, long waits, and poor service, I see the other side, dedicated men and women, doctors, administrators, and staff working diligently to repair a reputation destroyed by years of administrative neglect, malfeasance, and corruption. Over the past ten years, many improvements have been made. VA doctors and researchers continue to make breakthroughs in both mental and physical health, the field of prosthetics, nutrition, and alternative medicines. If it weren't for injured veterans and the VA researchers, little would be known about PTSD today.
Where Spirit Dwell; the Road to Recovery
     I walk the grounds, especially the north campus, where vets sit and reflect, or contemplate beside a waterfall and pond, seeking solace, solitude, and maybe even redemption.
     It’s clear to see why native Tongva people considered this sacred land. Vets feel the same way. With warts and all, the Soldiers Home is a place veterans can call Home, even though many are still trying to force them out, betraying a sacred trust.


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Antonio SolisGomez said...

great piece daniel, one that imparts very useful and necessary information as well as the appropriate outrage at what has taken and is taking place.

Unknown said...

Gracias Profe'. I've sat by the adobe that remains at the Rose Garden and I find peace until the thought of it all being land-grabbed makes me remove my hand from the adobe, takes away the calm that the benefactors "permanently" intended for all Veterans. Your right on the money on every count The only thing missing was mentioning the 300 yards of beachfront property that was deeded by the same benefactors for the residents of that "Home". That "pavilion" and "beach-house" never materialized because land-grabbers played the cards up their sleeves at a time that concern for Veterans in the U.S. was at a peak. Only post WWII concern for Veterans was higher but by then the history of land-grab at this location shows that this writing was on the wall. Only with the help of the "Extended Veteran Family" will this land and America's moral obligation to her defenders, the sacred trust, will be placed back where it belongs.