Veterans Tuned Into a 'Live' Town Hall with VA Secretary Wilkie. It Was Prerecorded

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Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, left, speaks with Veterans Health Administration Executive in Charge Dr. Richard Stone, right, before a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on budget on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, March 27, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harni)

Most -- if not all -- of a community town hall touted as a 'Veterans Experience Live' event with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie Monday on Facebook was prerecorded -- a staging that disappointed veterans who tuned in hoping the secretary would respond to a few of their questions.

The virtual event, for veterans, families, caregivers, survivors and others interested in the veterans community, featured the VA Secretary responding to prescreened, prerecorded questions on topics ranging from suicide, community care and military spouse employment.

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As with similar events presented in the past year by the Defense Department, the questions came from pre-selected individuals and were prerecorded.

But it appeared that the preceding discussion and Q&A between Lynda Davis, VA's chief veterans experience officer, and Wilkie, was also prerecorded, which became obvious when Wilkie wished veterans and their families a "peaceful and joyful Thanksgiving" four days after the holiday.

The only "live" portion appeared in the Facebook comments section, where VA employees sought to respond to questions rolling in from participants.

"VA staff is working on answering all questions," Department of Veterans Affairs officials wrote as the questions and comments -- nearly 800 in all -- came in.

For some veterans, however, the format was unsatisfactory.

"A town hall gives those in attendance a chance to participate by asking questions," wrote AMVETS National Executive Director Joe Chenelly. "That wasn't this."

"This was a paid political ad," wrote Brian Fleming, a retired Air Force explosive ordnance technician. "They hand scripted questions and offered zero relief/information to the vets listening ... what a bunch of bull----."

Wilkie was in western New York Monday morning dedicating a veterans cemetery in Pembroke with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Rep. Chris Jacobs, R-N.Y., and other dignitaries.

VA spokeswoman Christina Noel did not respond to a question asking her to confirm whether the event was entirely prerecorded, nor offer an explanation for the staging.

DoD has held at least three virtual town halls this year featuring screened, prerecorded questions on topics varying from COVID-19 and household moves to diversity, inclusion and readiness.

Unlike the VA event, however, the dozens of answers during the DoD town halls were live, delivered by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, then Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Ramón "CZ" Colón-López.

Not everyone was unhappy about the Facebook event. James Metrando, a veterans service officer with the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., wrote "Thank you for the Town Hall."

And Jeff McClintock, whose Facebook page sports the patch of 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, attributed improvements in his life to VA.

"Without the help of the VA when I became sick, I would have lost everything. Now I am at the point I can start to maybe stabilize. I'm not sorry this isn't everyone's experience [sic]."

VA officials responding to the comments section referred veterans to the White House VA Hotline, 1-855-948-2311, to the VA Welcome Kit available on its website and to a new number they are calling the MyVA411 information line at 1-800-698-2411.

Wilkie said he has traveled to all 50 states since his time in office touring VA facilities and said the department has experienced a "renaissance in terms of customer service and how we have served America's almost 10 million veterans."

"With this town hall, which has been expanding in size .. this is my third one, it shows that people want to be with us, they want to find out what is going on and this is an important way of doing it," Wilkie said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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