The 51 veterans who'd boarded a bus outside the Lakeside VA Medical Center at 4:30 in the afternoon on the Wednesday before Memorial Day had arrived in Washington late the following morning, gotten lost, missed breakfast at the Senate, missed their rally in Upper Senate Park, and were now sitting in a hearing room at the Cannon House Office Building grumbling at Congressman Luis Gutierrez, just as they'd done a half dozen times in Chicago. "I've had this conversation with you before," Gutierrez said. "Do you think there's anything you're going to tell me this morning that you haven't already shared with me?" Had they come all this way to say the same things they'd said to him back in March at the American Legion Hall on Cortland?
"You need to meet with the people who won't meet you back in Chicago," Gutierrez advised. "Talk to the guy in Washington, D.C., who thought it was a good idea to close Lakeside. I know I'm going to be in trouble for this. I can just hear Senator Durbin right now: 'You told those veterans to come over here and attack me!'"
The vets laughed. They weren't hotheads--everyone in the group was over 40 (the oldest, Al Galvan, was 80 and had served in World War II) and most knew they didn't have much time here: they were scheduled to head back to Chicago at six that evening.
The trip had been organized by Rochelle Crump, director of Chicago's Advisory Council on Veterans Affairs. Crump hazarded that it was the first time the city had dispatched activists of any kind to lobby against decisions made at the federal level. On the group's agenda of protest were cuts in VA programs, rising copayments, the recent imposition of restrictive means tests, and the threatened closure of the Lakeside facility, among other complaints. Crump had originally hoped to get at least two busloads of protesters, but felt that a mobilization of 57 (six protesters came by car) was all right for a first attempt.
Crump hadn't put the junket together by herself. John Borg, the president of Veterans for Unification, a grassroots group dedicated to fighting the downsizing of the VA, had gotten the word out to other veterans' organizations and then shadowed the bus in his car all the way to Washington.
The secretary of Veterans for Unification, a West Pointer and Vietnam vet named Bruce Parry, was a spokesman for the group. He sat with me on the bus--"You're embedded with the infirm old farts," he told me--rehearsing his talking points and chatting with Paul Thomas, who took up the two seats in front of us. Also a Vietnam vet, Thomas is six-five and 287 pounds, but looks even bigger. Both men are 54 and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. When the driver popped Saving Private Ryan into the VCR, Parry said, "We're gonna need PTSD counseling in 15 minutes." It sounded like a joke, but 15 minutes later Thomas asked the driver to turn it off. "Put on anything but a war movie," he pleaded. Nobody objected to the substitution of Changing Lanes.
No one slept much en route, but at least the wake-up call playing over the bus's sound system at 5 AM was B.B. King's "Never Make a Move Too Soon" rather than reveille.
Crump's initial plan had called for herself, Parry, Borg, and maybe one other person to question the secretary of the VA, Anthony Principi, in front of members of Congress. Principi, however, begged off. The group was now scheduled to meet with a deputy assistant secretary named William McLemore--"the highest-ranking guy that couldn't find an excuse to get out of talking to us," Parry said. They'd meet with McLemore at the Department of Veterans Affairs offices on Vermont Avenue at 12:30. In the meantime, this session at the Cannon building would be the extent of the group's contact with Congress.
Gutierrez introduced John Bradley, the staff director of the Subcommittee on Veterans' Health and right-hand man to Congressman Chris Smith, the chairman of the Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Along with Lane Evans, Democratic congressman from Illinois, Smith, a New Jersey Republican, had introduced H.R. 5250, a bill aimed at solving the Veterans Health Administration's annual budget problems by making the funding for veterans' health care mandatory. But the bill died in the 107th Congress and wasn't getting anywhere in the 108th. It, as much as anything, was what the veterans had come to Washington for.
A short, trim man with a neat goatee, Bradley said he was a veteran himself and sympathetic to the cause. "This will get me in trouble with Denny Hastert," he said, "but the leadership of the House likes the way things are going with VA health care. They're holding spending down, they're keeping the lid on, they're controlling what's happening." Smith, he said, was willing to break with his party's leadership over veterans' issues, but he had to work slowly and quietly. "The chairman was told he was on the wrong side of the issue, and if he continued, his chairmanship would be taken away."
Bradley opened the floor to questions. Retired air force colonel and Vietnam veteran Dr. Thalia Sipple wanted to talk about several instances of care being denied at North Chicago VA, but Crump cautioned that there wasn't time to get into individual cases. "Everybody here has a case," she said. Paul Thomas stood up and spoke heatedly about Congress's failure to legislate mandatory funding, about interminable waiting periods at VA hospitals, and rising prescription co-payments. Bradley walked down the aisle, removed his jacket, and stood beside him. "I'm on your side, I'm your friend," he said.
"Show me you're my friend," Thomas answered. "Get this information to your committee and even though I don't believe you, I'll bring some lo-ove for you!" With that, he grabbed Bradley in a bear hug so tight he lifted him off the floor. Shocked and awed, Bradley smiled crazily, a doll in the huge man's embrace.
Whether or not Bradley was on their side, at least he'd shown up. Several members of Congress had been informed of the meeting but hadn't come. Crump was particularly surprised that no one from Danny Davis's office came, given that there are two VA hospitals in his district.
Parry said the next move should be to split up into two groups: one going to Hastert's office and the other to Jan Schakowsky's. "Don't waste time talking to your friends," Bradley advised, recommending that they go in full strength to see House majority leader Tom DeLay instead of visiting Schakowsky.
The troop descended an interior stairway to the second floor of the building where both Hastert and DeLay had their offices. Those who couldn't manage the stairs would catch up later. Marching along, they were an impressive sight. One man, John Garcia, wore fatigues, and one woman, Sipple, wore her uniform. Several men wore black-and-gold jackets and black caps identifying them as members of Veterans Strike Force One, a mostly black veterans' group formed at West Side VA Hospital. Many had never been to Washington before; one, a former marine named A.R. Fleming who'd written a collection of poems entitled "Throwing Snowballs Across the Rice Paddies of My Dreams," had never been to the east coast. Other visitors stepped aside as the group marched along the polished marble floor of the hallway.
After a brief stop at Hastert's office (they were told neither Hastert nor his "point person" on veterans' affairs was in, but were promised that the information they brought would be passed along) approximately 20 of the veterans walked a couple of doors down the hall to DeLay's office. A worried-looking receptionist said the congressman was out, but then made a phone call and said, "Someone will be right with you."
That someone, Christopher Lynch, was well-built and well-groomed but so pasty he looked like he never got outside the building. Saying that he specialized in veterans' affairs for DeLay, he ushered the veterans out of the office and followed them to the hallway, shutting the door behind him. Parry immediately asked Lynch about mandatory funding.
"Mr. DeLay is definitely supportive of veterans and veterans' groups," Lynch answered. "He hasn't made a public stance on mandatory funding. He just hasn't made any public statements on it. So I can't tell you what his position is, because he hasn't actually come out and said it."
"And what would your recommendation to the representative be?" Parry asked. "You're the staff person for veterans' affairs, right?"
"Right. Then we have the point person on veterans' affairs. There's two--there's me and then there's another gentleman who's really the point person who advises the congressman on veterans' issues. So, he's really the point person. I mean, I can take your concerns and voice them to both the second staffer and the congressman."
Parry wouldn't be turned aside so easily. "The congressman is the majority leader. We look to Representative DeLay to lead on veterans' affairs. Can or can we not count on him to step forward and lead on veterans' affairs? We're asking you."
"He supports veterans," Lynch answered.
Several in the group asked how, but Lynch couldn't answer. He wasn't the point person, he told them again.
"OK," Crump said, "this is just the beginning of our presence. We gave you a couple of cards and we would really appreciate correspondence back from him saying what his position is and what his future position could be."
"You can't ask about his future positions on legislation," Lynch said.
Most of the group's activities had been scheduled for the morning and early afternoon. After the meeting at VA headquarters, the two bus drivers were to catch some sleep in a hotel room before the long drive back. On a tight schedule in an unfamiliar city, any time spent lost or stuck in traffic robbed them of time to rest.
The vets were a little late for their meeting at the VA, but were sent directly to the second floor without going through metal detectors or security checks. The meeting room wasn't grand, but it was big enough to accommodate the group. A man with whitish hair parted in the middle and a steel gray mustache stood at the front of the room and in a heavy southern accent introduced himself as William McLemore. Sitting behind him were six people, none of whom spoke or were introduced. One of the six needed no introduction.
"Joan Cummings is here," said a man in the third row. "Where?" came a response from the fourth row. "There in the front."
The director of VA health care for the Great Lakes region, Cummings has often been in the hot seat, explaining budget and program cutbacks to veterans' groups, responding to allegations of mismanagement and malfeasance on the part of VA staff, defending the closure of Lakeside as a move that would improve veterans' health care. Cummings is as unflappable as any spokesperson the government could offer. But McLemore took the lead. He explained the administration's position on veterans' health care: it was doing its best to follow the law. "If you think the law is wrong, where are you supposed to go?" he asked.
Crump pressed McLemore to define the Secretary of the VA's stance on mandatory funding. Principi didn't have one, McLemore told her. "The secretary is not allowed to take a position until Congress asks him to take one."
Reginald Raines, at 44 one of the youngest veterans on the trip, raised the point that some military recruiters had touted free medical care for life as an incentive to join the armed forces.
"I was in the service 1965 to 1981," McLemore responded. "I enlisted, and I can tell you nobody told me that if you served you'd get free health care for life." He went on to talk about what he had been promised. After ten minutes, John Borg interrupted him. "We don't have a lot of time, and you're spending a lot of time explaining everything over and over," Borg said.
"OK, let's move on," said McLemore. He called on Parry, who asserted that Principi was afraid to confront a large body of veterans.
"Let me comment on that accusation," answered McLemore, cutting Parry off. "The secretary would love to meet you. In fact, the secretary has met with your mayor, the secretary has been to Chicago, the secretary will go to Chicago again." Principi's absence was due to a scheduling conflict, McLemore insisted: he was out of town.
David Rogers stood up. Tall and almost cadaverously thin, sporting a nine-inch goatee and wearing a VSF-1 jacket with a badge that read, "PTSD--Not All Wounds Are Visible," Rogers was well versed in the minutiae of health care. He'd been a medic in Vietnam and a paramedic in Chicago. Recently, he said, there had been no diabetic strips (used to monitor blood sugar levels) available at West Side VA for three days. McLemore asked Joan Cummings if this was true, and she responded that it was. "It was a shipping problem from Abbott," she said.
"That's just symptomatic of the problem," Rogers argued. McLemore asked if Rogers had a solution. Rogers said hospital staff could have run out to Walgreens or Osco, and Cummings agreed that this was one possible answer.
More people in the back began muttering that time was running short. McLemore gave out his cell phone number and said he'd be available to talk all night. Paul Thomas broke in: "I am not satisfied with anything less than health care for every serviceman who risked his life for his country." After speaking for a few more minutes, he hugged both McLemore and Cummings. "We need you on our side, so I'm going to bring you some lo-ove too!"
There was much more to do, but the group was out of time. At three o'clock the bus took them from the VA to the Lincoln Memorial. They were told to regroup again at six for the trip home. Some went in search of something to eat, and a couple of people returned to the Cannon building to try to see their representatives. Almost everyone visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The drivers drove off to the Wyndham City Center Hotel to sleep, but returned 45 minutes later. The hotel didn't have their reservation. They'd have to sleep on the bus.
Later that evening at a dinner stop in Breezewood, Pennsylvania, Crump said that if she'd learned anything, it was not to delegate the making of hotel reservations to a third party. An army veteran herself, she said, "I thought it went well in terms of getting the word out that we're coming. And I think that in itself will go a long way, because they don't know what our next move is."
Crump plans on taking the protest movement national. "What we'll try to do is get organizations from each state to send at least 25 people. If we did that, that would be at least 2,500 people, and if we could move that, we'd be more powerful." She'd taken note that among the Illinois congressional delegation, only Luis Gutierrez had shown up. Most of the people on the trip would be reporting back to their organizations, she said. "We'll do a full report on what took place and how we handled it." She added, "I'm glad everyone kept their composure."
No one sang "Sweet Home Chicago" as the bus turned down Huron and parked across the street from Lakeside hospital at 10:30 on Friday morning, but one of the bus drivers spoke over the PA system. Glenn Carpenter had a personal announcement to make. He'd been in the marines until his discharge on November 22, 1969, and hadn't been involved with anything that had to do with the military since. "But I heard your cries, I heard your pain," he said. "I heard it all. I'm joining with you." The next trip, he said, he'd be on the bus as a passenger.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Curtis Morrow.