Las Vegas Sun

September 20, 2014

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Older veterans warn youngsters of the battles ahead

Retired Army Reserve Lt. Col. Peter Krommenhoek summed up the feelings of many of the veterans in the packed room.

"I am having a difficult time."

And that's not about to change anytime soon.

About 120 veterans attended a Veterans Affairs advisory committee meeting Wednesday night in Las Vegas. Many left convinced the committee, which was formed in May by VA Secretary James Nicholson to gather information on how to treat a new generation of veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, will do nothing to help resolve long-standing issues for older veterans.

"The people on the committee said it clearly - they will listen to us (older veterans) but they can't help us because they were here just for those who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq," said veterans rights activist Peter "Chris" Christoff.

"But if they don't fix things for the older veterans now, the new veterans will face the same problems we have had to deal with."

For instance, Christoff said , no committee member gave a definitive answer to the most asked question: Can the committee expedite getting the VA hospital that is under construction in northwest Las Vegas built and running before the projected date of 2011?

"I do not know enough about Las Vegas to answer that question," committee Chairman Lonnie Moore, a former Army captain who lost a leg in combat in Iraq, said after the meeting. "But when the hospital does open , I suspect , many of the concerns will disappear."

Of the nearly 40 veterans who spoke Wednesday night, just four were from the current wars. A number were from as far back as World War II, including Milton Duran , who prefaced his comments by saying he has been at odds with the VA over benefit denials since 1946.

Still, committee members promised they would make recommendations to bring about change from the information they gathered in Las Vegas and four other meetings that will be held across the country before September.

At times Wednesday's meeting got confrontational. Some speakers suggested the event was an exercise in futility.

Veteran John Hunt described it as a "dog and pony show," although he said he doesn't question the sincerity of the eight members of the 17-member committee who came from Washington, D.C.

Hunt said he feared that once the committee presents its findings to Nicholson and other bureaucrats, those suggestions will go into the proverbial circular file and veterans again will be left hanging.

One committee member told the audience that he was spending time away from his family to serve on the committee and would not have done so unless he thought the group would do some good.

The committee urged veterans with Internet access to go to va.gov/oifoef in mid-September, where by then the committee plans to have posted its recommendations first. The committee is slated to operate for three years.

The committee asked for the notes from which the veterans read but could not finish in the two minutes each was allotted - a real sore point for a number whose microphones were turned off after 120 seconds.

Christoff, a Korean War veteran , said he was impressed with the plea for a local VA hospital made by 23-year-old Rich Ciolfi, who suffered a broken back, blown off ear, paralysis and other wounds from a roadside mine explosion in Iraq on Dec. 16, 2003.

Ciolfi, a Palo Verde High School graduate, told the committee he is a student at Nevada State College and his trips to VA hospitals in California for monthly surgeries are making it difficult to complete his school reports and keep up with his studies.

He told the committee it would be in the best interest of the government to get the hospital built to save the $360 a month - $4,320 a year - it costs for his round-trip airfare to California for the operations.

Valley veterans have been discussing the need for a local hospital with similar national committees since 1991.

The concerns heightened in 2003 when the VA closed the centralized A.D. Guy Ambulatory Care Clinic and replaced it with neighborhood mini-clinics.

Those small facilities meet the need for routine doctor visits and some specialized care, but many veterans are still sent to out-of-state VA facilities for difficult procedures.

Christoff says he will never give up on VA-hosted meetings because he says some of the things they do for the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan may help other veterans.

"And maybe one day a president will come along, look closely at the VA and say, 'Let's overhaul this whole thing.' "

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