Dear Secretary McDonald,
We are pleased that you have accepted our invitation to visit the Rio Grande Valley, home to more than 130,000 proud Veterans. We have been trying to get a VA secretary to visit us for the past decade.
On your visit we hope you to take time to leave the politicians to one side – you can meet with them any day of the week – and hear directly from our long-suffering Veterans. You need hear of the sacrifices our Valley Veterans have to endure when they make the more than 500 mile, ten-hour round trip to San Antonio’s Audie Murphy VA Hospital for care that they could and should be receiving in the Valley.
In a news advisory sent out to promote a VA-media roundtable discussion in Harlingen on Aug. 3, VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System spokesman Hugo Martinez said: “We are working on rebuilding the trust of our Veterans with transparency and open communication.”
The VATVCB has a long way to go to rebuild that trust. There are still far too many Valley Veterans making the 500-mile round trip to San Antonio for medical treatment.
Just the other week my comrade Josemaria Vasquez, a Veteran from the Delta, had to make the 500-mile roundtrip to the VA Dental Clinic on Data Point Drive in San Antonio, because the VA dental clinic in the Valley was closed.
Secretary McDonald, I would like you to hear the story about Eduardo Salinas, a Veteran from Mission, Texas. He had his bladder removed and was released from the hospital in San Antonio two days after his surgery with staples from his groin area all the way up. He had to travel 250 miles back to his home in Mission in an old pick-up truck. When the driver applied the brakes for a quick emergency stop, all the staples popped off and the Veteran was left holding his guts in his hands.
Salinas was taken to Brooks County Hospital in Alice and had to spend the night on a wooden bench, without first aid or even a towel to hold his guts in. The following morning, still without first aid he was taken by ambulance, to the local bus station and placed on a Greyhound bus back to go back the Valley to finish his hospital work. He was admitted to a civilian hospital – and passed away a few weeks later. As far as we know, no corrective action was taken in regard to that death of this Mexican-American Veteran who fought in Korea and Vietnam.
Perhaps Marie Weldon could enlighten us on why Eddie Salinas was released from hospital two days after major surgery. Weldon, who was director at Audie Murphy VA Hospital in San Antonio at the time, bragged at a meeting with the VA Committee for Minority Affairs a few days later, at which I was present, that “We empty our beds FAST!” Since Eddie Salinas was my wife’s uncle, I chastised her for her crude remarks. I was no longer invited to VSO meetings.
According to the VA’s own studies, VA care in San Antonio and the Valley is reported to be among the worst in the nation. Yet, Weldon was, amazingly, promoted by VA and transferred to Los Angeles. Weldon did away with the meal vouchers for our impoverished Valley Veterans who had been fasting most of the day, due to lab work – and she did away with same-day travel reimbursement, so our Veterans could not buy enough fuel to safely return to their homes in the Valley. How Weldon kept her job we will never know.
Then there was the case of a Veteran from Brownsville he lost all of his fingers to gangrene a few weeks after he was over-sedated and went into cardiac arrest at Audie Murphy VA Hospital in San Antonio. Since I live in San Antonio, I had to fill-in to help with his morale, since his wife could only afford to visit with him once a month – and then I had to help them out of my pocket.
Mr. Secretary, it is a shame you do not have time to drive the round trip from the Valley to San Antonio starting at just-past midnight and returning almost 24 hours later to the Valley with one of our wounded warriors. You would learn a lot. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who is hosting you in the Valley, and his Valley district director, Ana Maria Garcia, are fully aware of these horror stories. I hope they share them with you.
We could write several books about all the horror stories about the long trips to San Antonio; on and on, if we were not so busy trying to get VA to correct these gross injustices by building a full-service VA hospital where it is most-needed, in the midst of the Rio Grande Valley.
I would, Mr. Secretary, offer you two recommendations related to VA care in the Rio Grande Valley. Firstly, the VA needs to build a full-service 24/7 VA hospital in the region so that veterans do not have to keep going to the “band aid” clinics the VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System currently provides. Secondly, VA personnel who do not treat our U.S. Veterans with respect and with dignity should be terminated.
We have been fighting for this first recommendation for decades. The answer to all these long treks to San Antonio for medical help, Mr. Secretary, is obvious. The VA, working with the State of Texas and the UT-Rio Grande Valley, should build a full-service 24/7 VA hospital in the Valley. As you know, this is something then-Senator Barack Obama promised us when he was running for president in 2008. Such a hospital would not only deliver the best healthcare close to home to our suffering Veterans, it would also provide thousands of good-paying jobs for our veterans and their families.
Future graduates from the UTRGV Medical School would not have to leave the Valley in order to find jobs which match their newly learned skills. There would be hundreds of construction jobs and thousands of secondary-support jobs. It would mean a huge boost for the economy of this socio-economically deprived region.
The new VA hospital in the Valley would benefit all of Central and South Texas, freeing up thousands of appointments at Audie Murphy, which will mean more-timely appointments for Veterans from Eagle Pass to Ozona, from Sonora to Johnson City.
I will try my best to be present for your visit but, due to health problems this may not be possible. It was due to the lack of proper VA medical care in the Valley that I had to settle in San Antonio, away from my beloved Rio Grande Valley and my parents. Tuesday, I will be undergoing some heart procedures in San Antonio; it will be my Valentine’s Day in September.
Finally, Secretary McDonald I would remind you of the sacrifice our Valley Veterans made, sacrificing their youth and their health, defending our United States of America. I urge you not to let our Valley Veterans down. They did not let us down. They gave 100 percent when serving our country and continue paying the price of their loyalty. Anything less than 100 percent medical care for our wounds and illnesses would continue to be a slap in the face of each Rio Grande Valley U.S. Veteran.
Editor’s Note: In the main photo accompanying this op-ed, Vietnam War veteran Placido Salazar and other veterans line up to testify at a hearing hosted in Donna, Texas, in August, 2007, by then-U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Bob Filner. Filner heard overwhelming support for a VA hospital for the Rio Grande Valley.