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Peter Vallecillo, director of the Southwest Institute on Poverty and Civil Rights, and Placido Salazar, of the Hector P. Garcia American GI Forum Organization of Texas.

RAYMONDVILLE, RGV – Around 30 Rio Grande Valley veterans met in Raymondville on Saturday and agreed to file a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in order to secure a VA hospital for the region.

The lawsuit will be filed in federal court in either Brownsville or McAllen by the San Antonio-based Southwest Institute on Poverty and Civil Rights and its general counsel, Arthur Vega. The lawsuit will claim there is ethnic discrimination against the largely Hispanic veterans’ community in the Valley.

Valley veterans groups are being asked to circulate a petition in support of the lawsuit and commit to raising $15,000 to help pay for legal fees.

“We think a class action lawsuit is the only recourse we have left. We have tried everything else, including marches from the Valley to San Antonio. Without legal intervention the veterans’ hospital will never happen,” Vietnam War veteran Leo de la Fuente of Harlingen told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“We need to get this petition out and we need all our veterans to sign it. We have got to unite,” said Santiago Krummel, a Vietnam War veteran and member of the VFW Gallegos Post in McAllen, after the meeting had concluded.

The petition states:

We the undersigned Veterans of the Rio Grande Valley hereby submit that we have served our country, the United States of America, proudly. There are studies that have been conducted in regards to the population of Veterans living in the Rio Grande Valley estimated at being approximately 110,000.

All Rio Grande Valley Veterans seeking and accessing medical services have to travel approximately three and a half hours to San Antonio, Texas Audie Murphy VA Hospital for treatment. Medical services for Rio Grande Valley Veterans are “farmed out” to local hospitals.

There are VA hospitals throughout the United States where there is a lessor number of Veterans located within their regions and who mainly serve non-Hispanic populations of Hispanic Veterans. This is unfair and shows that there is a disparate treatment of Rio Grande Valley Veterans. Therefore, we believe the only remedy to resolve this matter is to file a class action lawsuit.

Peter Vallecillo, director of the Southwest Institute on Poverty and Civil Rights and state director for the Dr. Hector C. P. Garcia American GI Forum Organization of Texas, made the pitch for a class action lawsuit at the meeting, which was organized by the American GI Forum and held at the American Legion Hall in Raymondville.

“I found it quite surprising that the veterans who attended the meeting today were quick to accept the fact that this is what they need to do, file a class action lawsuit. I think they are tired of all the promises from politicians about establishing a VA hospital in the Valley. They feel this is the only remedy. I did not really have to make a sales pitch. They were with us,” Vallecillo said.

Asked why the lawsuit will allege ethnic discrimination, Vallecillo said: “If you compare a certain ethnic group of individuals and the services they are getting to other regions in the United States that is called disparate treatment discrimination, where one group of ethnic individuals are being denied access in their immediate proximity. We will argue that the Veterans Administration has failed to provide at least equitable access to medical services in the Valley.”

Vallecillo said that in addition to better access to healthcare services for veterans, the Valley would benefit economically from a VA hospital. “The will be more employment opportunities for Hispanics. We are trying to make a connection to UT-RGV and the School of Medicine. A Veterans Hospital should be part of that.”

Joseph Nazaroff, co-chair of Bexar County Tejano Democrats, traveled from San Antonio to the Valley with Vallecillo. Nazaroff said: “Everybody in Texans knows a veteran and every one of them who served in combat came back different. The nearest VA hospital to the Valley is in San Antonio. It is appalling Valley veterans have to travel a great distance for the medical care they deserve. It is not a gift, it is something they deserve.”

In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian after the meeting, Emilio De Los Santos, Hidalgo County’s director for veterans’ services, said the marches Valley veterans made to San Antonio a few years make made a big difference. He said it brought the issue of a VA hospital for the Valley into the national spotlight, caused the VA to create a separate regional district for South Texas that excluded San Antonio, and led the VA to issue healthcare cards to Valley veterans so they can seek treatment at any local hospital.

“Now, we do not have the 4,895 veterans driving to San Antonio for treatment. We have less than 400, and they are going for specialist treatment. So, we are doing a lot better than before. Today, if you ask a veteran how they feel and they will tell you, they love the card. They do not want a hospital because they can go anywhere,” De Los Santos said.

However, De Los Santos said he still backs the push for a VA hospital in the Valley. “The VA is spending in excess of $40 million a year with our local hospitals. What happens if the money for the contracts runs out? We would be back to square one. That is why the hospital is so important. Once you have brick and mortar it is very difficult to close. They will not destroy that. They tried to close the Waco hospital and it did not happen.”

De Los Santos added that the 110,000 figure contained in the lawsuit petition refers to the number of veterans in the 20-county region south of San Antonio, not the four-county Valley. He said there are approximately 35,000 veterans in Hidalgo County. He said if a VA hospital was built in the Valley some of the 110,000 would still prefer to access the San Antonio VA hospital, such as those in Laredo, because it would be easier to get to.

Jose Maria Vasquez, a vice commander with the American GI Forum, made an impassioned plea for the class action lawsuit. He said that when Valley veterans made their first march to San Antonio, a bureaucrat with the VA asked, “What do you all down by the river want?” He said when he and other veterans went to Washington, D.C., to push for a VA hospital for the Valley they were dressed in uniform. However, he said they were still asked if they were American citizens. This comment drew gasps from the audience. He said that when former Congressman Chet Edwards, who at the time was chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, visited the Valley he was asked why the region does not have a VA hospital. He said Edwards inferred that it was because the region was Mexicano.

“I am sick and tired of it. I don’t think we should have to beg, plead, everything else (for a hospital). We need that lawsuit, to make them see we are a force to be reckoned with. Why are we not getting it?” Vasquez asked.

“We don’t want any more than anybody else. But, we do not want any less. We deserve the same as everybody else,” Vasquez said, to loud applause.