The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs owes Ed Saunders a swift and sincere apology.
The VA has threatened to fine this veteran, who has long served as a leader of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 10. Saunders has spoken up on behalf of fellow veterans, calling attention to the gaps in professional staffing at the expanded VA clinic building that opened in February on Majestic Lane.
His alleged offense?
Being photographed by a Billings Gazette photographer in the lobby of the new VA clinic.
Not coincidentally, the photo that VA objects to was printed with a news story in which Saunders, other U.S. veterans and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester voiced concerns about staff vacancies persisting several months after the clinic opened.
Saunders consented to be photographed by The Gazette in a public lobby area of the clinic. the VA’s own rule 38CFR 1.218 (10) states that photos may be taken for news purposes in lobbies, foyers or entrances of the clinic, or any other place on VA that a director may authorize.
Three days after that photo was printed in The Gazette, a VA clinic security officer told Saunders that he was in violation of VA rules that require written authorization from the head of the facility prior to photographs being taken. The officer informed Saunders that a violation of this VA rule could subject Saunders to a $50 fine.
Saunders, who had often photographed public events at VA facilities and had photographed DAV vans at VA facilities, was unaware of any such written permission rule.
He told Gazette reporter Cindy Uken that he felt the threat of fine was intended to intimidate him. This has diminished his confidence in the VA so much that he decided to leave that health care system and get his care at Billings Clinic.
VA leadership should be ashamed to have Saunders leave the VA health system. This incident illustrates the clueless management that has embroiled VA in so much scandal nationwide.
At a time when VA needs to restore all veterans’ confidence, instead the administration is harassing a decorated veteran leader and spokesman.
VA ought to be completely focused on service improvement. Instead, Billings sees the agency trying to intimidate a veteran who exercised his First Amendment right to criticize his government.
A disabled veteran of the Persian Gulf War who retired as U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, Saunders was the driving force behind Montana State University Billings students restoring the DAV Flags Over America trailer. He has written multiple letters to The Gazette to recruit volunteer drivers for the DAV veterans’ transportation program. For more than two years, he pushed for regular MET bus service to the VA clinic on the far West End, and the city last summer revamped its routes to include the clinic.
Ed Saunders deserves the thanks of his community and respect from the VA. Montana acting Director Johnny Ginnity and public affairs officer Randy Martin should send Saunders apologies immediately.