BILOXI -- Across the street from the front gate of the local Veterans Affairs Medical Center, more than 120 veterans turned out Tuesday morning to voice their grievances concerning the current state of the VA system.
The forum, hosted by U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo at VFW Post 2434, was meant to be geared more toward gathering information and connecting veterans with area organizations and military-affiliated staffers of the congressman. Instead, it turned -- almost immediately -- into a spirited town hall-style meeting, with many veterans looking for answers.
Henry McCoy was one of a handful of veterans who stood up during the forum. He acknowledged the VA has helped him with issues in the past, and that his quality of life has improved, but veterans as a whole are starting to lose their trust in the system.
"I think today was kind of just putting a Band-Aid on the problem. We need to get back to the basics of how we're treated at the VA hospital, as a person who fought for this country and as a person who stood up. Not as a number," McCoy said. "We're starting to lose that in translation here. ... When I go to the VA on a daily basis, I'm treated with not only disrespect, but as a number."
After passing the microphone around the audience, and addressing several ques
tions or handing the concerns to his aides, Palazzo met individually with veterans for almost an hour.
One of the main objectives of the current VA reform bill, which is moving through Congress, is to hold VA executives accountable. Bonuses have already been frozen, but Palazzo said more should be possible.
"There's a culture of corruption within the VA. You have incompetent senior executives who screw up in one VA and instead of being fired they get transferred to another," Palazzo said, to a roar of approval from many of the veterans. "There's a culture of corruption where they protect one another. We want to be able to fire them and prosecute them."
The bill also looks to expand private care options for veterans who face either lengthy wait times or live in rural areas. Palazzo said he also wants to protect whistleblowers, the hard-working employees who are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation.
"We're not talking about all of the employees. We're talking about a minority that's hurting the health care for the majority of our veterans," he said. "There's a lot of admirable employees who work at the VA, so what we're trying to do is give the VA the tools to reform the system."
Luther Harvey didn't air any complaints during the public portion of the forum, but he did take the microphone at the end to thank the congressman.
"We are under friendly fire. The body counts are mounting up," he said. "I want to thank you for giving us the opportunity to return fire."
Representatives from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Combat Wounded Veterans of South Mississippi, Habitat for Humanity, AmeriCorps Mississippi and the American Red Cross attended Tuesday's forum, the second in as many days for Palazzo. About 75 veterans attended Monday's meeting in Hattiesburg.