Placido Salazar
Placido Salazar

SAN ANTONIO, Texas – In testimony before a U.S. Senate panel earlier this week, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki assured a full and open disclosure process and action in response to allegations about misconduct involving patient care at VA facilities.

“This is a demonstration of concern by this department, trying to make sure that every veteran – no matter where they live in this country and even our overseas locations – have an equal opportunity to have access to quality healthcare,” Shinseki said.

I have had the honor of meeting with Shinseki personally, during a VA Veterans’ Minority Affairs Committee meeting in Washington, D.C., at the invitation of our fellow veteran, Mr. Lupe Saldaña, a couple of years ago. Our mutual friend, General Freddy Valenzuela (Retired) also helped to open the door for us.

South Texas veterans Josemaria Vasquez and Lydia Caballero traveled by car with me to Washington. We did so at our own expense to personally reiterate to General Shinseki our concern for the needs of more than 120,000 U.S. Veterans in Deep South Texas. We wanted him to know that the Rio Grande Valley is more than a 500 mile, ten hour plus roundtrip away from the Audie Murphy VA Hospital in San Antonio.

These are Shinseki’s words: “(We’re) trying to make sure that every veteran, no matter where they live in this country and even our overseas locations, have an equal opportunity to have access to quality healthcare.”

I would to remind General Shinseki the very best “quality healthcare” is not equally available to our South Texas Veterans. In fact, for thousands it is way beyond their reach. Too many of our impoverished, aging veterans who desperately need earned “quality healthcare” for their combat-related wounds or illnesses find it physically or economically necessary, to abandon their right to the VA healthcare they earned, due to the distance and travel time involved, especially during the hot Texas Summer days. Their only option is to continue with their suffering, to an untimely pain-filled death.

We find it hard to believe or to accept that our legislators and VA system officials remain blind to this fact and to acknowledge that the two VA clinics in the Valley are just not equipped to provide the emergency room, surgical, in- and out-patient care, or long-term facility, which our aging U.S. veterans desperately need.

“Any allegation, any adverse incident like this, makes me mad as hell,” Shinseki told the Senate panel. “I understand that out of those adverse events, a veteran and a veteran’s family [are] dealing in the aftermath and I always try to put myself in their shoes.”

Josemaria Vasquez, Lydia Caballero and I respectfully invite the General and/or President Barack Obama to put himself in the shoes of Valley veterans and in their old cars on any typical VA appointment day. We invite General Shinseki to accompany one of our Valley veterans and the family member who has to take the day off from work to drive the aging Veteran, usually in an older car without air-condition, from Brownsville to San Antonio and back. This arduous trip usually starts at just past-midnight, on the road, then patiently waiting most of the day to be seen by a doctor or PA for a few minutes at the overloaded Audie Murphy VA Hospital, then returning home close to midnight.

While way-too-many Americans have been calling General Shinseki’s resignation, we have remained staunchly faithful to him, as expected of military tradition, placing most of the blame of the current VA healthcare situation on the endless string of unsympathetic non-veteran, well-to-do legislators (with their own healthcare) who have delivered nothing but empty political promises over the years.

With my suggestion to convert a wing of the soon-to-be built University of Texas School of Medicine in Edinburg as an interim to ultimately building a much-needed full-service 24/7 VA hospital, Josemaria Vasquez and I met with UT System Chancellor Dr. Francisco Cigarroa and his staff. Cigarroa indicated that this seemed “doable.” This proposed medical wing to care for our Valley veterans, in a partnership between Veterans Affairs and Texas University School of Medicine physicians, would be staffed by interns, under the watchful eye of the VA and/or VA doctors.

Even an interim facility such as we have recommended for Edinburg would immediately alleviate much of the overload at Audie Murphy, allowing for more timely appointments for veterans receiving their care at Audie Murphy.

General Shinseki and most every senior officer have frequently stated that “it was our sergeants who helped me make it to the top… these sergeants knew what needed to be done – and they did it.” Well, I believe and recommend that any fact-finding committee, should include some middle-grade NCO Veterans, who have first-hand knowledge of what the situation is. I’m sure General Shinseki knows that Washington bureaucrats, or VA medical center directors will never be able, or willing, to give him factual details, either because they have not experienced the hardships of our impoverished Veterans or because they are actually part of the problem.

Previous communications to General Shinseki have gone unanswered. I hope this will not be the case with this communication. With all due respect, loyalty is a two-way street.”

Placido Salazar is a retired Vietnam War veteran who served in the U.S. Air Force. He is Veterans’ Legislation Liaison for the Dr. Hector P. Garcia American GI Forum Organization of Texas, Inc.