© 2024 KGOU
Colorful collared lizard a.k.a mountain boomer basking on a sandstone boulder
News and Music for Oklahoma
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

VA Restores Benefits To Vietnam Vet After Believing He Was Dead


It's been a rough week for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Congress subpoenaed officials who allegedly scammed hundreds of thousands of dollars out of the VA in relocation fees. Then the VA had trouble explaining why so many of its staff were on paid leave last year. And the department may even have a problem distinguishing which veterans on its rolls are alive or dead, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Navy veteran Mike Rieker fought on river patrols in Vietnam. He got exposed to Agent Orange which gave him heart problems. At least he's alive, he says, or so he thought.

MIKE RIEKER: Well, I had a conversation with the VA on Monday morning, and they told me that my benefits were suspended because I was deceased.

LAWRENCE: The local VA in St. Petersburg, Fla., said his wife had even filed for burial benefits, but he's not married.

RIEKER: It took a few minutes of conversation before I actually convinced the lady that - well, I fogged the mirror this morning, so I believe I'm alive.

LAWRENCE: Rieker joked about it, but he depends on that disability check. Now, Rieker says before this, he's had no complaints about the VA. But his congressman Republican David Jolly says his office has run into the same problem six times in the past year. And a recent VA Inspector General report says 307,000 applications are for veterans who are probably deceased. Another Inspector General report got VA officials hauled in front of Congress this week after they initially wouldn't show.


JEFF MILLER: Their failure to appear led us to unanimously vote on and issue subpoenas to compel their testimony, something we have never done before.

LAWRENCE: That was House Vet's Committee chairman Jeff Miller. He tried to get answers from senior VA officials about an alleged scheme where they changed jobs in order to collect hundreds of thousands in relocation fees. He only got one answer.


DIANA RUBENS: Sir, I've been advised by counsel not to answer that question to protect my rights under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.

LAWRENCE: That was VA regional director Diana Rubens taking the Fifth along with regional director Kimberly Graves. VA secretary Bob McDonald tried to focus on the positive when he spoke at the National Press Club this afternoon. McDonald said the disability claims backlog is down 80 percent, and the average wait time for an appointment is just four days for primary care and three days for mental health care.


BOB MCDONALD: Those averages are excellent for most, but if you're the one in the tail of the curve, like a veteran living in a city seeing dramatic veteran population growth, they're not acceptable.

LAWRENCE: McDonald said he's working to bring all VA offices on a unified data system and give consistent care nationwide. He said VA needs Congress's help to do it, which McDonald says he gets most of the time even if politicians use the VA as a punching bag.


MCDONALD: Rather than having veterans at the center of a political issue and using veterans as a political pawn for one party or the other to play got-you with the president, their administration or the Department of Veterans Affairs, it's better that we work together to do what's right for veterans and forget this gamesmanship. It just doesn't make sense.


LAWRENCE: McDonald suggested that Congress hold a hearing on the VA's accomplishments instead of what he called a barrage of hearings about things that happened before he took office. Congress has no such hearing on the schedule. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
More News
Support nonprofit, public service journalism you trust. Give now.