Vets vent to Warner at campaign stop

American veterans and their family members met Monday with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), and shared their horror stories about how the Department of Veterans Affairs has handled their cases. (Jeff Simon/The Washington Post)

GLOUCESTER, Va. – Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) had just finished greeting the members of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter #58 and removed his suit jacket when the emotional stories about misplaced paperwork, frustrating interactions and endless bureaucracy at the Department of Veteran's Affairs began.

One by one, more than a dozen people detailed their personal struggles getting care: Lewis Sietz, a 96-year-old World War II veteran, who couldn't get an appointment for three years. A woman whose elderly mother was refused spousal benefits after her father, a World War II veteran, passed away.

"This is crazy, who do I go to?” she pleaded to Warner. “I know you want to help … my mother went from full benefits to nothing, I'm supporting her. What do we do?"

Another woman said her husband received a notification for a physical – two weeks after his death.

Warner stood close to his constituents, nodding, sometimes placing a hand on their shoulder as they vented.

"I'm going to be on this, as much as I can be on this," Warner said to one individual, noting that his proposal to reform the VA's ailing IT systems was part of the VA reform bill signed into law by President Obama  this month.

The stop in Gloucester was one of several veteran-focused stops this week – he stopped at the VA's Hampton Roads and Richmond locations to meet with top brass as well – but their plight is one that he said he hears about where ever he goes.

"It's almost like since these stories came out in June, that a vein has opened," he said following the meeting at the DAV. "And as I've dug into this more and people around the state know that I'm trying to see if we can get a fix, it's not just here at the disabled American veterans hall, it's everywhere I travel, veterans will come up to me and tell me stories."

Warner was among the first Democratic senators to call for the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki after the news of a widespread coverup of long wait times and corruption inside VA surfaced last spring.

"I come out of this session as frustrated perhaps as any meeting I've had in the last five years," he said.

There are more than 840,000 veterans in Virginia, according to a 2013 report by the VA, and the state has one of the highest veteran populations per capita in the country.

Warner faces a challenge in the fall from Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a longtime Republican operative. Recent polls show the incumbent senator with a double-digit lead over Gillespie.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said veterans in the Old Dominion are politically diverse and don't tend to vote as a block, but their issues can't be ignored.

"There are plenty of veterans' votes for both Warner and Gillespie, and no candidate can afford to ignore a tenth or more of the likely voter pool," he said in an e-mail. "It may well be that the final statewide percentages for each in the Senate contest won't be dramatically different than the proportions found in the veteran population."

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