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VA apologizes for using Oscar the Grouch to depict frustrated veterans

A Department of Veterans Affairs office has drawn fire for likening disgruntled veterans to Oscar the Grouch in a training guide for employees who were preparing for a town hall meeting this week, according to a newspaper report.

The Philadelphia Inquirer obtained an 18-page slide show in which the agency’s Philadelphia benefits office used an image of the Sesame Street character to depict former troops who might come off as demanding and unrealistic. The materials also told staffers to apologize for the negative perception of the VA, which is rebounding from a record-keeping scandal.

The Oscar reference angered at least one veterans groups, and it likely hinders the VA’s efforts to repair its image after official government reviews found extensive treatment delays and widespread falsification of scheduling records at the agency’s medical centers.

“There is no time or place to make light of the current crisis that the VA is in,” Veterans of Foreign Wars national spokesman Joe Davis said in a statement. He added that the use of Oscar’s image insults the VA’s “primary customer.”

VA Secretary Robert McDonald apologized for the controversial training materials  Thursday, saying the Philadelphia office had discontinued their use. He added that he has ordered a review of all training programs to ensure that they are consistent with the new culture that the department is working to create.

“This comparison [to Oscar] is clearly contrary to our mission of serving Veterans, our I-CARE Values – Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, Excellence – and the kind of open culture we want in the new VA,” McDonald said in a statement.

Marisa Prugsawan, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia VA benefits office, said in a statement that the agency regrets any misunderstanding the slide show may have caused, saying the Oscar reference was not meant to equate veterans with the cranky garbage-can dweller.

“It was intended to remind our employees to conduct themselves as courteously and professionally as possible when dealing with veterans and their concerns,” Prugsawan said, according to the Inquirer.

The town hall meeting was part of a series of such events McDonald ordered for all VA healthcare and benefits facilities to improve communication with veterans.

The secretary is in the midst of a tour of VA offices nationwide to speak with employees and talk directly with former troops who use the network.