Phoenix VA Health Care System main campus

Associated Press

Phoenix VA Health Care System main campus

VA Scandal: Native Veterans Have Suffered, Former Marine Officer Says

In April, CNN reported that at least 40 United States veterans died as they waited for doctor’s appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System in Arizona. Many were allegedly placed on a secret waiting list.

Veterans Affairs managers in Phoenix are now accused of formulating a situation where up to 1,600 sick veterans were made to wait for months to see a physician.

Emails obtained by CNN show that high-ranking management at the VA hospital in Arizona was aware of the practice and even defended it. 

The issue is ominous, but especially for Native American veterans. It’s reported that Native Americans enlist in the military in larger numbers than any other ethnic group. According to VA.gov, in 2010, Arizona had the second largest population of Native American veterans at 10,943.

Jeff Estep, an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, who lives in San Clemente,  California, is a former Marine captain and a disabled veteran. He recently told ICTMN that he has had firsthand experience dealing with the difficulties and slow response from the VA. “The VA backlog is horrendous; it’s disgraceful,” said Estep, who suffers from back injuries. “I’ve had to suffer in that. I think the VA initially turns down people, and then often turns down people knowing they won’t appeal. It’s exacerbated in Indian Country.” 

As an operations commander in the U.S. Marine Corps, Estep suffered damage to his spinal chord after a jump from a helicopter in Korea in 1980. “The wind got me bad,” he said. Estep landed sideways on the ground and today seeks acupuncture for his injuries.

It took four months for Estep to get an appointment to have his medical prescription reordered. Regardless, he said he feels the scandal at the VA has been going on for “some time.”

“I certainly believe, particularly in Indian Country – in Arizona – they’ve suffered, but they’ve suffered for a long time,” he said. “See, we’re only now hearing about it. We probably haven’t even tipped the iceberg with what’s really happened with those folks.”

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Estep, who served in Vietnam, said he does not feel the VA scandal will prevent Native Americans from joining the armed forces. “When you’re 18 or 20, when you’re enlisting, the VA is the last thing on your mind,” he said.

On Monday, which was Memorial Day, the American Legion said the VA scandal had left a “black eye” for veterans.

Verna Jones, director of veteran affairs and rehabilitation at the American Legion National Headquarters, told CBS in Washington, D.C., that veterans are hurt by the ongoing scandal. “This VA scandal is leaving a black eye every day for veterans,” Jones told CBS’s Washington,D.C. affiliate. “Veterans deserve more than the VA is giving. Veterans are losing faith in the system.”

Amid the scandal, President Barack Obama on Sunday paid a surprise visit to troops in Afghanistan. On Monday, Mr. Obama laid the ceremonial wreath at Arlington National Cemetery. During the ceremony, he commented on the scandal. “As we’ve been reminded in recent days – we must do more to keep faith with our veterans and their families, and ensure they get the care and benefits and opportunities that they’ve earned and that they deserve,” he said, reports the Associated Press. Embattled Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired Army general, was present.

Estep said Shinseki, who is allegedly supported by the president, should resign.

*This story was updated to include details about Estep’s injuries.*

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