|Vietnam Veterans of America|
“Mr. Secretary, do you know what the life of the typical veteran in the North Central Arecibo region is like?” asked Juan A. Rosado, president of VVA Chapter 398. He and his fellow chapter officers had traveled from Arecibo, Puerto Rico, to North Carolina to deliver a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough, who on November 5 addressed the delegates assembled in Greensboro for VVA’s National Convention.
In order to set up a brief meeting, schedules were rearranged and press interviews were truncated. VVA Government Affairs Director Sharon Hodge coordinated with VA staffers, and ten minutes were found in the Secretary’s schedule to meet the Puerto Rican delegation. Standing in the hallway outside the Convention Hall, the Chapter 398 officers voiced their concerns as Secretary McDonough listened.
“We are only requesting the same quality of care that other veterans enjoy throughout the continental U.S. We ask for your urgent intervention to expand the medical services currently proposed for the outpatient clinic in Arecibo, Puerto Rico,” Rosada said.
“Veterans have limited access to medical care and often must travel hours to towns like San Juan, Mayaguez, or Ponce. They are dying because they cannot access the medical care they need. The veterans of the Arecibo area need pharmacy service; clinics for kidney, heart, and foot health; and a cafeteria in the Arecibo outpatient clinic. One in four veterans suffers from diabetes in Puerto Rico. These clinics are essential to our veterans.”
Rosado invited Secretary McDonough to the dedication of the newly reconstructed Arecibo Community Based Outreach Clinic. “The clinic is programmed to open in December,” he said. “We would like you to celebrate with us. Will you do us that honor?”
On December 3 Special Adviser Marc McCabe and I set out for Puerto Rico to attend the dedication of the Arecibo CBOC. VVA President Jack McManus had planned to attend, but his travel was delayed in Atlanta and there were no connecting flights.
VVA Puerto Rico State Council President Jorge Pedroza met us early the next morning. “Today is a good day,” he said on the drive to Arecibo. “The veterans here have waited a long time, and on December 13, finally, they will have their clinic back and will be able to get care without having to travel long distances or wait too long.”
More than four years earlier Hurricane Maria had flattened large parts of Puerto Rico. “In Arecibo, the entire VA clinic was obliterated. Tents were put up as temporary treatment centers,” Pedroza said. “These past four years have been very challenging.” In Puerto Rico, where 70 percent of VA patients are Vietnam veterans, Pedroza and his fellow officers have a full agenda.
As we took our places outdoors under big white tents along with VVA members from Chapter 398 and throughout Puerto Rico, we heard Fr. Diego Cuevas Rivera’s blessing and prayers for the veterans and for the clinicians and staff who care for them.
We were welcomed by Executive Director Carlos Escobar and heard remarks from the leadership of the VA Caribbean Heathcare System: Deputy Director George Velez, Associate Director Iris Hernandez, Chief of Staff William Acevedo, and Associate Director Jaime Marrero. The new state-of-the-art clinic includes a women’s clinic, psychiatric health care, home health care, and tele-med. It will also administer community care and the VA caregivers program.
We heard from Arecibo Mayor Carlos Ramirez. Then the skies opened, and we moved inside for remarks from Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon (R-P.R.) and Dr. Francisco Colmenares-Martinez, the outpatient’s director.
As we drove back to San Juan, we crossed a bridge. “This is the bridge I had to walk to in order to get a cell signal so I could return your call,” Pedroza said. It was miles from his home. He reflected on the changing weather patterns on his island. He spoke of being trapped by fallen trees, getting free, and helping others during the hurricane, as well as of the isolation and the damage to infrastructure.
Concerns During Covid
“The issue of the Regional Office is a separate issue,” Pedroza said. “This concept of total work from home is hurting elderly Vietnam veterans the most. They are dying before they receive their earned disability benefits.”
McCabe said that his “main concerns” since the start of the pandemic “are lack of transparency and direct communication. The veterans in Puerto Rico have been locked out of seeking answers and getting paperwork to and from the Veterans Benefits Administration. The VBA acting director has never set foot in the Commonwealth. Other senior leaders still reside in CONUS.
“The leadership needs a wakeup call from D.C. to re-establish the Regional Office and resume business and provide the services they are charged with. The veterans of Puerto Rico deserve a full-time director and assistant director who will at least attempt to engage in the culture and language of the veterans whom they are placed in a position to serve.”
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