SAN DIEGO – Veterans were horrified while seeking VA health care on Wednesday when approached by Homeland Security police in an Operation Shield exercise. The exercise was for the purpose of “presence deterrence” at a VA health care facility in San Diego. Many veterans’ legal advocates are concerned about what this “presence deterrence” actually means and what it seeks to accomplish for veterans needing care. According to reports, 20 officers from the DHS Federal Protective Service (FPS) dressed in full black combat gear crowded at the entrance of VA Mission Valley Health Care Clinic on Wednesday. These officers were not wearing any name tags and refused to identify themselves. Four bomb-sniffing dogs accompanied the secretive police group that arrived at the facility in 8 white SUVs marked "FPS", which then blocked all access to parking for disabled veterans. Veterans arriving for care were alarmed and some frightened away. VA Mission Valley Health Care Clinic houses numerous service centers including a general practice clinic, psychiatric clinic, PTSD treatment clinic, and the disability compensation evaluation clinic. The impact of this event on veterans is disturbing. The advocacy group, Honoring Our Troops (HRT), promptly wrote a formal complaint to VA OIG in Washington, DC after fielding numerous communications from veterans who were shocked by these recent federal secret police actions. OIG has yet to formally acknowledge receipt of their complaint since it was filed several days ago. According to HRT’s OIG complaint, veterans on site were harassed and threatened when they took pictures and asked questions about this bizarre behavior. One veteran was threatened with a fine of $10,000 and arrest if he did not delete a photo he had taken. Another elderly veteran refused to enter the clinic with his wife. When the veteran’s wife asked a VA doctor about the action, she was told it was a “familiarization exercise.” Is this the new normal at VA facilities that veterans must become familiarized with and used to? And why? What justifies this kind of action by the Feds? Navy Captain Joseph John (Ret), chairman of Combat Veterans For Congress PAC, was not surprised when the report crossed his desk. After a cursory investigation, Capt. John concluded, “Due to [confidentiality] concerns, we can only get personnel in the office of Honoring Our Troops to tell us that the parties who witnessed the exercise [saw. The witnesses included] a retired Navy Chief, employees of the VA Medical Center, patients inside the building, etc., who witnessed armed FPS officers in SWAT gear walking up and down the corridors inside the VA Medical Clinic in Mission Valley.” Capt. John opposes unannounced police actions at VA medical facilities that resemble “para-military exercises.” His deepest concerns are for elderly veterans with “heart conditions, suffering from PTSD, or elderly Veterans from the WWII or Korean era could be frightened and negatively affected by these [secret police] exercises in the middle of [their medical treatments].” For these reasons, Capt. John believes DHS and its FPS division “should be prevented from holding these para-military exercises at any VA medical Center,” especially during patient treatment and service times during the day. Since the OIG complaint, HRT received numerous threatening calls to their organization’s volunteers by individuals whom they believed were VA or DHS employees. Callers blasted the organization saying, “VA does not need this type of exposure right now; bringing this up will not help veterans.” Other harassing calls threatened the staff with stalking and investigations into their own personal conduct. According to HRT, the calls were all blocked to hide the caller’s phone number. A spokesman for the San Diego VA Regional Office, Alejandro Mendio la Flores, verified this FPS police action and stated it was part of Operation Shield for “presence deterrence.” VA claims the official count of FPS officers was only 8, and that the FPS does not owe VA any explanation for its actions or training exercises -- even if it affects a VA medical facility or its patients. Nor does DHS-FPS have to give VA any advance notice that these exercises will occur or get VA’s permission to conduct them. Just what is going on here? VA already has in place a "patient security flag" procedure under VHA Directive 2010-053. Even though this procedure is completely illegal and occurs in secret VAMC staff councils behind closed doors, it is nevertheless the main device VA has created to deal with security issues with any veterans who give them reason to be concerned for potential violent incidents. The VA-OIG made a rather shocking report about this illegal procedure just last year -- and any lawyer or judge who reads it would be horrified at the blatant "due process" violations, since veterans cannot know who made the complaints about them or in any way have a chance to refute or defend against false allegations by VA staff. See OIG Report No. 11-02585-129, March 7, 2013. The questions that beg to be answered are: Why does DHS-FPS and VA think these preemptive “presence deterrence” exercises are needed to enhance or maintain security at VA medical and other facilities? What evidence does DHS-FPS and VA have to think this para-military behavior is even necessary, which puts the health of veterans at risk when they arrive for a wide range of treatments? None of this makes any sense or seems to be well thought out. So what is the meaning of all of this? Does DHS and VA have such callous disregard that they never considered the harmful impact such presence would have on veterans with serious physical and mental health disabilities for which they are coming to VA to get treatment? VA constantly asserts they are striving to give veterans the best in health care. If that is true, why did they leave these questions out of their thinking? Is this the new veteran-centric care Secretary Sloan Gibson recently promised to the American public and veterans? Mr. Mendio la Flores refused to answer additional questions on the concerns relating to whether or not any veterans were in fact harmed by these recent incidents. The House Committee on Veterans Affairs was asked for comment but was not able to reply to this writer prior to publication.
Benjamin Krause is an award winning veterans advocate, investigative reporter, and attorney. He is a disabled veteran of the US Air Force, where he served in its Special Operations Command. Check out recent coverage of his work by Pioneer Press reporter Ruben Rosario, "Veteran has fought the VA, but he'd rather help fix it." Benjamin was also recently interviewed as a topic expert by Tavis Smiley on the VA Wait List Scandal for National Public Radio.