With the Iraq Occupation grinding through its fifth year, the Bush Administration and its supporters continue to trot out the “Support the Troops” bumper stickers and yellow ribbon decals at every opportunity, shaming us into wasting even more billions of dollars on a failed exercise in empire-building that keeps our soldiers in harm’s way.
Meanwhile, local veterans’ groups here in Los Angeles find themselves fighting a rearguard action against powerful real estate developers and unresponsive government bureaucrats to preserve local facilities that could actually support the troops once they return to civilian life.
To get a deeper understanding of this issue, we met with Jim Maddox, President of the Pasadena Chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, and Keith Jeffreys, President of Citizens for Veterans Rights. We sat with them in the VVA’s cluttered office in Old Town Pasadena as they gave us a detail-rich lesson on what their organizations are trying to do on the home front to “support our troops.”
“The Veterans Administration wants to sell off or lease out parts of the West Los Angeles VA for use as condominiums or parks or warehouses for movie studios,” Jim told us, pointing to an especially critical issue for the two veterans’ groups. “These properties should only be used to benefit veterans. To us, they’re ‘hallowed ground.’”
Standing up for Veterans
Maddox regularly briefs the local congressional delegation on behalf of his nonpartisan organization and the community of veterans it represents. Several times a year, he meets with Representatives Adam Schiff, David Dreier, Hilda Solis, Xavier Becerra, and Henry Waxman, or their staffs. “I’d love to meet with Dianne Watson, too,” he says with a good-natured grin, “if only she or her staff would return my calls.”
Begun in 1978, the VVA established itself as an advocacy organization to focus attention on issues especially pertinent to Vietnam veterans, issues that had been overlooked by larger, more established veterans groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. The VVA has 50,000 members nationally and about 100 in the local Pasadena chapter, which includes the entire San Gabriel Valley.
“Agent Orange was our first big cause,” said Maddox, himself a Vietnam combat veteran. “People didn’t want to believe it was a real ailment, but the VVA presented the research and pressed the case. It was the same story with the Gulf War Syndrome from the first Gulf War, which officials tried to dismiss. Now it’s post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and neurological deficits.”
“These IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in Iraq act like sonograms, sending shock waves through the brain that could cause untold damage,” he said. “We just don’t know what these IEDs are doing to our soldiers, but we suspect that we’ll see the consequences in years to come, just like we saw with Agent Orange. And we’re already seeing a ton of cases of reported PTSD coming out of Iraq that will only multiply over time.”
“Also, sexual trauma among female Iraq War veterans has become a big issue,” Maddox reported. “The VVA is working to address that as well.”
The Battle in West Los Angeles
Jeffreys talked to us about the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) program, which the VA touts as a system-wide process for meeting the current and future health care needs of veterans in modern health care facilities. VA literature calls it “the most comprehensive analysis of VA’s health care infrastructure that has ever been conducted.”
But according to Jeffreys, the CARES program only sounds good on paper. “The VA generates $5 million a year through long-term leases at the West LA property,” he said. “But they lost $350 million several years ago—just lost it—and they won’t show anyone the leases they already have.”
The 388-acre property where the VA facility sits was donated to the federal government in 1888 for specific use by veterans, an intent Federal legislation reinforced in 1998. But during the Reagan Administration, efforts began popping up to privatize parts of the property to pay for operations. Today, a thousand-car Enterprise rental car facility sits on the VA land, as does a Fox Studio warehouse, and the VA offers no guarantees about similar leases in the future.
“Brentwood School has 20 acres of VA land that they got in a sweetheart deal during the Clinton Administration,” said Jeffreys with something less than a good-natured grin. “It’s a school for the well-heeled. Spielberg’s kids go there, and Swartzeneggar’s — but you can bet not the kids of any ordinary veterans. Promises to veterans have not been kept.”
To make sure those promises are kept now, both Mattox and Jeffries and their organizations are marshalling their forces for the next CARES hearing, to be held on Thursday, September 6th, from 5 to 9 p.m., at the Wadsworth VA, located at 11301 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. “We plan to be there in force,” Jeffreys said, and he and Maddox urge other veterans and their supporters to attend as well.
Building Political Muscle
Both these veterans’ groups have lined up significant support from the political establishment for their West Los Angeles VA cause, in particular from Congressman Henry Waxman, whose district contains the VA property, and from Senator Diane Feinstein, who along with Waxman has introduced legislation designed to extend and permanently enforce protection for the property.
Waxman’s HR 2225 prevents sale of the VA property and prohibits “enhanced-use” leases, according to his district director, Lisa Pinto, who has worked closely with veterans groups in recent years. “Those are often used as a disposal tool,” she said. “If someone has leased government property for an extended period of time, it’s that much easier for the government just to sell the property it hasn’t used in years.”
“The legislation also mandates the land use master plan passed as part of the 1998 bill,” she said. “That would let everyone see just what the VA plans to do with the property now and in the future.”
Pinto is less worried about the upcoming CARES hearing than she was for a similar hearing two years ago. “Still, turnout will be key,” she said. “We need people to speak up for veterans’ rights at the hearing. Letters from concerned groups would help, too. We need to get the word out.”
Joining her in those concerns is long-time LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (pictured), whose district also includes the disputed properties.
“This has been a cause of mine for several years,” he said. “When the Bush Administration first came into office, they made it clear they wanted to privatize VA property to raise revenue for VA operations.”
According to Yaroslavsky, California Senator Alan Cranston led the effort to stop the privatization efforts during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. “Early during the Bush Adminstration’s first term, I met with Anthony Principi, the Secretary of the US Department of Veterans Affairs at the time,” said Yaroslavsky. “We were able to come to an agreement that put a hold on the privatization efforts. Principi honored our agreement to curtain privatization. But when James Nicholson replaced Principi as Secretary in 2005, the VA began to push full-force towards privatization again.”
Yaroslavsky supports he Waxman-Feinstein legislation before Congress that would extend the 1986 Cranston Act to the whole West LA VA property, not just part of it.
“I hope it will pass,” Yaroslavsky said. “But it’s a fight.”
“There are powerful real estate interests lobbying in Washington DC and an unresponsive VA bureaucracy here in Los Angeles that wants to convert the property to private uses,” he said. “Right now, they rent out the VA facilities to parties that have the booze flowing, right next to VA centers that provide treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction.”
“We have soldiers coming back from the Iraq/Afghan War with the most complex medical issues of any war,” he continued. “Because of the advances we’ve made with medical technology, they’ve survived injuries that would have killed soldiers in earlier wars. If the VA leases out or sells off property at the West LA VA, it will not be serving these clients who have answered their country’s call.”
Yaroslavsky contended that we should not be talking about making the “highest and best use of the property,” a catch-phrase used to support the CARES proposal. “That’s not how government should operate,” he concluded. “Yosemite Park does nothing with its land, nor do other government agencies. As Senator Feinstein says, ‘You don’t sell off your assets to fund your operations. If you do, what will you do the next time you need money for operations?’ It’s like selling your seed corn.”
Proposals have come forward from several quarters to use part of the Wadsworth VA property for homeless veterans. Among LA County’s estimated 80,000-strong homeless population are between 15,000 and 25,000 veterans. Both Maddox and Jeffreys support converting unused VA buildings to house and treat homeless veterans, but such support is not uniform among veterans groups.
“One veterans group allied with us wants to preserve the West LA property for veterans, but is not interested in pursuing homeless housing,” according to Jeffreys, who is also founder of the LA Area Veterans’ Artists Alliance. “Another wants to create a park there that would primarily benefit the surrounding community in Brentwood. So, for now, we have a marriage of convenience with these other groups to preserve these lands. Later, we can push to create services for veterans.”
In May, Yaroslavsky joined in a letter to Secretary Nicholson asking that the VA use its facilities to house and treat veterans. “They have three buildings that would serve 300 to 400 veterans at a time,” he said. “That’s not 25,000, but I’ve taken the approach that you help one homeless person at a time, 10 at a time, 100 at a time, and not let yourself get overwhelmed with the more daunting numbers.”
Joining him on the letter were Representatives Waxman, Watson, and Jane Harman, State Senator Sheila Kuehl, Assemblymembers Karen Bass, Julia Brownley, and Mike Feuer, LA City Council members Bill Rosendahl and Jack Weiss, Calabasas City Councilman Barry Groveman, and Santa Monica Councilman Barry Shriver, who originated the idea.
Nicholson, also a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, has indicated that this proposal will be on the agenda for the upcoming CARES hearing and will be considered.
Although Maddox and Jeffreys struggled to maintain their organizations’ nonpartisan stance, their mentions of “Draft Dodging Denny Hastert” and “Roachcoach Tom DeLay” betrayed their personal political leanings.
“You know, veterans have tended to vote Republican in recent decades,” said Jeffreys with Maddox nodding in the background. “But if the Democrats could get behind veterans issues like the West Los Angeles VA in a big way, they might turn that around.”
The VA property was originally deeded to the federal government in the 1880s for the benefit of Civil War veterans, and its facilities have served veterans returning from every war since.
“We owe it to our veterans, their families, and the larger community to honor that pledge and repay our debt for their service to our nation,” Yaroslavsky said. “These are hallowed grounds, and they deserve to be preserved and protected.”
— By Dick Price