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VA Town Hall wasn't pretty

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Column by Jim Clark

Our veterans served their country with dedication and heroism, most of them leaving their families for a long period of time to be stationed in various places around the world, protecting our freedom.

Now they are supposed to be served by the federal Veterans Administration. I got a glimpse into how things work, or don’t work, earlier this week, and it wasn’t pretty.

With much hoopla, at least in some places, the VA held one of a series of town meetings in Ocala on Monday.

The news release from the VA was short on details, but we ran it last week, letting our veterans know that it was coming up.

The site was 1515 E. Silver Springs Blvd., and it turns out that it was in the Cascades office plaza, which some people drive past regularly. The Cascades is a wide expanse of offices in several buildings, with a maze of passageways to negotiate to find anything.

In the meeting room, which was Room 115, there were about 50 chairs set up, because that’s all that would fit. The room, which reminded you of a dungeon, was packed.

The complaints started almost immediately, complaints about medication, about service, etc. One lady even complained that a VA van was parked in a handicapped space “and wasn’t moving.” One of the women from the VA said she would take care of that, and she evidently did. On Tuesday morning the van was gone.

Some of the complaints were hard to hear, since the room had no microphone setup. Then again, the room wasn’t that big.

The most familiar phrases out of the suits sitting up front was, “We’ll take your name and get back to you.” The meeting started at 2 p.m., and by 2:20 people were walking out, mumbling “Nothing is going to get done.”

So if the VA hoped to make friends with its “town meeting” plans, it came up way short.

When I arrived at the Cascades, I found the building with a huge 1515 on the side, and found an entrance labeled “VA outpatient clinic.” Just was I was entering, I encountered a security guard and asked him if the meeting was this way. He pointed and said, “Room 115, downstairs.”

Since I was going in off the parking lot, I didn’t realize I was on what the Cascades calls the second floor. I wandered about for a couple of minutes, came out another door that faced the boulevard, and found an elevator, and pressed the down button, and got off on the first floor.

When I left the elevator, I walked down a long corridor which had a bunch of offices, none of which were occupied. I went back to where I started and found one office, and the lady told me, “I think you have to go across the bridge, and that’s where the lower 100s are.”

She was right. I crossed the bridge and flagged down another security guard, and he took me directly to the meeting.

When I left, I took a short walk past a sink (thought I was in the galley for a moment) and then was in an outer hallway. I spotted an elevator just a few feet away, hopped on and went up to the second floor.

It turns out this wasn’t the same elevator I came down in, so when I got out I had no idea where I was. However, I mustered all my Cub Scout skills and noted that the sun was at my left, which meant I was walking west past the flowing water (hence the name Cascades). Of course, the exit signs helped. I finally found myself out in the parking lot, and a different entrance than when I came in, found the violating van, took a picture of it and found my car.

I have two questions: Why didn’t the VA find a more suitable meeting place, such as the County Commission meeting room? Surely they knew that small “conference room” would be packed.

And second, how about a few signs off a copy machine and stapled to sticks to point the way to the meeting? Maybe there were signs at the other end of the building, but many people were coming in the same entrance that I did.

I doubt if this meeting left anyone with the feeling that they had accomplished something … anyone that is, except the VA personnel. They did their duty by holding the town meeting and can report that fact to their bosses. They’ll probably get a raise for doing so. And the veterans will get nothing.

Jim Clark is the editor of the South Marion Citizen.