HEAVY LIFTING: Metro veterans want candidates to talk about real change — now

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AURORA | When he arrived at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Texas after being paralyzed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, David Daniel Ortiz was hardly impressed by his rehab options.

“Their rehab was ‘Here is you chair, good luck,’” the 34-year-old Army veteran said. “That wasn’t good enough for me.”

After some aggressive lobbying on his own behalf, Ortiz wound up at Craig Hospital in Denver — the facility he believed would offer the best care in the country.

Now living in Colorado, Ortiz is watching this election closely and said he wishes candidates were more specific about the issues that matter to veterans like him — especially how to improve the VA.

“Don’t thank me for my service, do something real,”  he said. He was referring to a common comment he hears from politicians, who routinely publicly thank him for his service. The sentiment’s appreciated, he says. But what wounded vets need is decisive action by political leaders to change the VA so that all vets, but especially those with injuries, can return to leading the best life possible for them.

In Aurora, which is home to Buckley Air Force Base and a long-delayed VA Hospital project, veterans will likely be an important voting block this fall. The 6th  Congressional District, which includes all of Aurora as well as a swath of the south suburbs, is home to about 50,000 veterans, according to Census data.

But despite their clout, many veterans say their issues have rarely received the sort of specific attention they’re hoping for, and that goes for sitting politicians as well as those running this fall.

For Ortiz, who is a media relations manager for the United Veterans Committee of Colorado and has advised Morgan Carroll’s congressional campaign, said he wishes VA issues got more attention.

Specifically, he said he’d like to see Congress make it easier to fire VA employees who mess up.

At Craig, Ortiz said he was treated by top-notch doctors who were always focused on him, a far cry from the care he got at the VA in Texas.

“They can create a climate that is reactive in a quick way to what the patients need, whereas the VA is this big lumbering system,” he said.

He also wants to see the VA forced to email patients instead of calling them or sending details about their care or appointments through the mail.

Those two issues — adopting mandatory secure messaging for the VA and making it easier to can low-performing employees — should be easy fixes, he said, but they rarely get attention on the campaign trail.

“I’m tired of empty words and I’m tired of party rhetoric,” he said.

Two of the biggest veteran groups in the country — the VFW and American Legion — have also lamented a lack of action on VA issues, mainly in Congress.

The American Legion lambasted Congress for not tweaking the rules for veterans unhappy with their care at the VA.

“Modernizing VA’s archaic appeals process is of the utmost priority. Over the past year, the American Legion has engaged in discussions with VA leadership, VSOs, and private attorneys to improve the claims and appeals process,” American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt said in a statement.

The VFW echoed that sentiment earlier this month and said Congress needs to tackle VA improvements before the election, not after.

“I cannot tell you how disappointed I am in the 114th Congress,” VFW National Commander Brian Duffy said in a statement. “Both the VA and the VFW have point blank told Congress what the department needs to better serve veterans, yet it appears every funding bill is going to be tabled until after the November elections, which means another continuing resolution to temporarily fund the government that does little to strengthen national security or bolster the VA’s programs and services for veterans.”

Jon Soltz, chairman and co-founder of VoteVets.org, a progressive veterans group, said that in down ballot races, including Senate races around the country, veterans issues have received more attention than they have at the top of the ticket.

“But Americans pay less attention to the down ballot races than the presidential,” he said.

He noted that during the first presidential debate this week, veterans weren’t discussed in any detail, while Trump’s comments about a beauty queen were.

Vote Vets has already spent several million against Donald Trump, and Soltz, who served in the Army in Iraq, said he lays the blame for the dearth of specific proposals on vets issues at the GOP nominee’s feet.

“It’s worse right now because if had been Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz against (Hillary Clinton) they would have been trying to have a policy debate,” he said.

This race is often dominated by reaction to some of Trump’s more-controversial statements and Soltz said that has a way of pushing veterans issues — especially reforming the VA — to the sidelines.

“Unless he wants to have a serious conversation about veterans, we’re not going to have one,” he said.

Frank Crocker, Colorado director for the right-leaning vets group Concerned Veterans For America, said the lack of discussion about the VA has been frustrating.

While the agency has been plagued by controversies in recent years — including delays and cost over runs at the Aurora hospital and long delays for vets seeking care around the country — that string of headlines has not lead to many specifics from politicians, he said.

Crocker, who served in the Marine Corps. and is now in the reserves, said that politicians occasionally mention the need to “reform the VA,” but it’s not followed by specifics about how to make the agency better.

“What does that mean specifically?” he said. “You cant just say ‘we are gonna reform the VA.’”

Who’s to blame for VA troubles? Aurora congressional candidates argue money over reform

Mike Coffman, longtime Republican incumbent for Aurora’s 6th Congressional District, says VA leadership is to blame for ongoing problems with veterans receiving adequate healthcare.

“It is leadership, and the failure of leaders within that department to put the interests of veterans ahead of the bureaucracy or the political wants of whoever happens to be in the White House,” Coffman’s campaign spokeswoman Cinamon Watson said. A larger part of the controversy focused on revelations that VA patients were suffering from huge waits for treatment, and that VA employees had manipulated data to make it look like those wait times were less than they really were.

Two years ago, the congressman led the charge in demanding then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resign following information that revealed the veterans’ replacement hospital in Aurora was millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

“Until Mike Coffman and a couple others blew the whistle on corruption in the VA, this was one of those egregious, real-life Washington D.C. scandals that literally no one knew about,” Watson said. “And therefore, there was no pressure to fix. More than any other person in Washington, Mike Coffman has created the storm of outrage that is bearing down on the VA and forcing it, many times against its own will, to change.” 

Coffman, a Marine Corps veteran, has long called for restructuring at the VA to improve care. In recent years, he has also helped pass legislation to remove the VA from managing major construction projects, including the massive veterans hospital in Aurora.

Coffman’s campaign did not respond directly to whether and how he plans to tackle VA improvements before the election, or to veterans’ concerns that bills related to funding the VA are being tabled until after the election.

Watson instead pointed to a slew of veteran care bills she said Coffman has passed since 2015. A more recent one provides funding for injured combat veterans seeking in vitro fertilization services.

Meanwhile, Coffman’s Democratic challenger, Morgan Carroll, says funding is the problem. She blamed a lack of action by Congress. including Mike Coffman.

“The single biggest problem with the VA is that Congress has failed to fully fund it and failed to update outdated laws that slow down delivery of services — leading to long waits for care for our service members and people falling through the cracks,” Carroll’s spokesman Drew Godinich said in a statement. “If we want a strong VA that fulfills our commitments to our women and men in uniform, we need to ensure that we are providing it with the resources that it needs to fulfill that mission.”

Responses from Carroll’s campaign included Coffman as part of that problem.

“In order to modernize the VA appeals process, we need to fully fund the VA and Congress also needs to pass the requested modernization changes to the statutes to help expedite the appeals,” Godinich said. “Mike Coffman and Congress have been obstructing both the funding and the introduction and passage of the needed modernization laws.”

Carroll’s campaign office also emphasized her commitment to veterans through her time as a legislator in the Colorado House and Senate.

“Veterans are core to our message — and I’ve  fought for veterans for my entire career: expanding housing for service members at Buckley Air Force Base on time and on budget, creating the Military Family Relief Fund, and passing a law that ensures our veterans can transfer the skills they learned in the military to the civilian world,” Carroll said in a statement. 

Both candidates declined to comment on why veterans have not been a more central focus of their ads, with Trump and Clinton at the forefront of their ad battles with each other instead. But neither campaign is leaving out the possibility that the veteran issue won’t crop up in ads before Election Day rolls around.

“The campaign season is far from over,” Watson said. “Mike is happy to talk about his record with veterans and I’m sure voters will have an opportunity to learn more.”

But veterans like Ortiz say that’s their point. Everyone wants to talk and everyone wants to improve the VA. But all the talk, good intentions and finger-pointing hasn’t improved the VA system, and they want that to change.

— Aurora Sentinel reporter Rachel Sapin contributed to this report.