A town hall meeting held by the Clement J. Zablocki VA turned into a platform for veterans, including some from UW-Milwaukee, to express deep concerns with how the VA Hospital is being run.
A handful of UWM veterans spoke out during the question-and-answer portion of the town hall, which was held in the Wisconsin Room at UW-Milwaukee and featured guest speakers from Zablocki.
The scope of the town hall was to highlight Zablocki’s focus on mental health awareness for veterans at the hospital as well as to strengthen its partnership with UWM’s Military and Veteran Resource Center. The key guest speakers for the town hall were the director of the Milwaukee VA Dr. Daniel S. Zomchek and the director of the Milwaukee Regional Office Duane A. Honeycutt.
UWM enrolls nearly 1,400 veterans and is one of the top schools for veterans in a six-state region. The Military and Veteran’s Resource Center was created in 2012 and has seen a sizeable increase in foot traffic over the course of the last five years.
UW-Milwaukee’s Chancellor Mark Mone spoke at the end of the town hall. “This is a vitally important town hall, it is critical, we are so proud of being able to be the host for all of this. We serve more veterans than any other school, by far, in the state of Wisconsin. The Military and Veterans Resource center has actual staff, which includes a lot of people who support those who have served. We are so fortunate to have the VA support, especially Gretchen Schuttey who is on site from the VA.”
One UWM veteran, Inocencio Gonzalez, spoke up numerous times throughout the town hall and stressed that he has plenty of evidence of alleged misconduct that has occurred at Zablocki. Gonzalez was seeking answers after he said experienced issues for years with the VA.
“Unfortunately I have experienced the uglier side of the VA. Specifically not documenting symptoms as well as having doctors argue and yell at me for symptoms I have brought up. I have documentation and recordings as proof of the misconduct,” alleged Gonzalez.
Gonzalez asked both Zomchek and Honeycutt whom he can talk to get some help with the issues he experienced during the Gulf War, as well as issues he alleges that he has experienced at UWM.
In response to Gonzalez’s concerns, Zomchek said, “First of all, what you’re describing to me is clearly unacceptable. It is not consistent with our values. We have a plethora of mental health programs to help people recover, that is the whole point of what we do. What I would love to do, is to be able to connect you with someone who is here, to get your name and contact information and either I or someone within our office will reach out to you.”
Earlier, Zomchek made it clear that Zablocki VA’s major focus was to better recondition veterans and that suicide prevention was their number one priority. According to a recent study, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs estimated that 22 veterans commit suicide every day, which accounts for nearly 20 percent of all suicides in the United States. This number is staggering since veterans make up only 9 percent of the population.
“We are rolling out a reach a vet tool. It is essentially an analytical tool, that helps us to better predict the likelihood that veterans might attempt suicide at some point during their treatment programs. We do fantastic at mental health in general; we have a plethora of services across mental health and other services as well because it is a big priority,” said Zomchek.
A Vietnam era veteran, Leonard Zolecki, said that he has had an incredibly difficult time communicating his needs to the VA. Zolecki said that he has given Zomchek his personal information and has yet to hear back from him. Zolecki also said over Christmas that his lung collapsed, and he has been in and out of the hospital (as recent as the week prior to the town hall) and has no idea what is wrong with him.
Zomchek’s response to Zolecki: “I will give you my personal card when we’re done and then we’ll take your contact information and I’ll make sure that you get a call. I’m sorry if there was something missed last time around.”
Another UWM veteran, who did not state his name, spoke of a broken leg he suffered this past summer and alleges that post surgery, his VA doctor told him that he does not need physical therapy and to let it heal on its own. He asked Zomchek and Honeycutt how this could be an acceptable practice from a doctor at the VA, saying that he suffered for four months without being able to use his leg as it did not heal.
Both Zomchek and Honeycutt asked those who spoke up about their individual issues to stress those after the town hall, so that they could get a better grasp of the particulars of each situation. A question was asked about the appeals process for veterans’ injuries (for example, a knee which needs surgery, but was initially deemed a low-grade injury), and Honeycutt said that the Board of Veterans Appeals office’s time of approving an appeal can take up to three years, to which many of the members in the crowd gasped.
Both Zomchek and Honeycutt discussed at great length how the VA has experienced a 90-day hiring freeze. The hiring freeze has come down from an executive order from the President of the United States Donald Trump. Under the executive order, essential health care provider positions are exempt from the hiring freeze. A full list of exemptions can be found here.
For the Regional Benefits office, it is a different story. The Regional Benefits Office handles veterans’ injury claims, disability compensation, education and insurance services among other things.
“The hiring freeze has affected us; it has actually pretty much put a hold one everything,” Honeycutt said. “Since the beginning of the hiring freeze, we’ve attritted about 15-18 people. Put that in perspective if we were to meet here about a year ago, I would tell you the 675 people pretty much did the claims work only for veterans that resided in the state of Wisconsin (excluding pension operation). A year forward, we’re taking on more of a national mission. It is not uncommon for about half our work to be Wisconsin veterans and the other half to be from anywhere in the country. The hiring freeze has affected us.”
Former Panther alumnus and veteran Dr. Michael McBride had an opportunity to speak about the partnership between Zablocki and the Military and Veteran Resource Center at UWM. Dr. McBride is a psychiatrist, specializing in Mental/Behavioral health.
“Last year you helped us with our Mental Health Summit, brought out your students and they stole the show. In fact, after our summit last summer you approached us and said we’d be willing to work with you on a bigger summit here at UWM, so June 16, you’ve got the entire Union, focused on LGBTQ+ Veterans and the entire veteran community to share information about the VA and the community.”
Zablocki intends to have more town hall meetings as means of providing an environment for community engagement. At least 10 veterans took the opportunity to attend this town hall and there is a lot of learning potential for not only veterans, but the community as well.