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Good News! A Victory for Veterans in LA and a 21st Century Model for VA Campuses in the Future

If veterans appear in the news, it’s usually in a negative light. Unemployment. (California veterans have a 7% unemployment rate.) Suicide. (37% of veterans have contemplated suicide.) Homelessness. (10% of homeless are veterans in Los Angeles.) And worse, most veterans don’t know where to go to seek help.

Well, today I want to tell you a positive story about veterans.

Over the last year, a grassroots effort sprung up among veterans in Los Angeles to improve how the VA treats veterans. This movement shows how great things can happen when people, but especially veterans, take a role in their government.

A little background. In the late 19th century, several wealthy landowners donated land upon which now sits the West L.A. V.A. Campus. Over time, the VA took over control of the land--extremely valuable land in the middle of Los Angeles--and eventually entered into long-term leasing arrangements that didn’t serve the best interests of veterans.

Unfortunately, this land mismanagement couldn’t come at a worse time for veterans. According to a survey conducted by USC’s School of Social Work, after leaving the military, 51% of veterans don’t know where to get help. And the average wait time for veterans in Los Angeles is 176 days.

A few years ago, a group of veterans sued the V.A. to protest the problems in the VA and how the land--which was deeded to veterans--was being used. Another internal audit of the VA saw similar issues on the West L.A. VA Campus. So far this seems like the same bad news story you usually read without any bright spots.

That changed in January of last year. Secretary of the VA Bob McDonald agreed to settle the lawsuit and work with veterans to improve the West LA Campus. Secretary McDonald would present a new plan to renovate and revitalize the campus, and he would seek veteran input to do so. In two days, on January 28th, Secretary McDonald is set to sign off on this plan.

That’s where I got involved. (I served in the U.S. Army after graduating from UCLA from 2006 to 2011.) A group called Vets Advocacy started organizing veterans so we can make our voices heard. I didn’t have to attend meetings, analyze the VA proposal or submit personal comments. But like my fellow veterans, I felt compelled to not just watch as the VA makes policies but to help inform the policies to make the West LA Campus something great.

The energy of veterans in LA was inspiring. Hundreds of veterans met regularly to plan our course. Simply put, we achieved historic amounts of involvement. The West LA VA Campus renovation plan received over 1,000 comments, the highest number of comments in federal registrar history. Thousands more tweets and facebook messages were distributed by thousands of veterans to raise awareness of this issue.

The plan is not just historic for the amount of comments, but for what this represents. This plan represents the possibility to change the VA from being a hospital or housing shelter into a community that brings veterans together. The veteran leaders I’m working with don’t just want to make the VA function better, we want to build a community of veterans and work with the VA to improve the lives of the people who fought and sacrificed for our country.

Even better, we know that we are creating a model for the whole country. Our efforts in Los Angeles are providing a blueprint for other VA campuses around the country for how to to turn from being simply a hospital into a community.

Our fight isn’t finished. Veterans are going to keep fighting to ensure that plan puts the interests of veterans first and foremost, builds a community for all veterans and provides a model for the VA nationwide. We’re going to demand accountability and ensure the VA lives up to the promises it has made to veterans.

Knowing my fellow veterans--some of the most energetic, passionate and hard-working people in America--I know we won’t stop here. That is a great news story about our veterans.

Go to the website VATheRightWay.org to learn more about this effort. As we wrote above, this Thursday, VA Secretary Bob McDonald will address veterans about the future of the West LA VA campus and sign the new master plan for the campus.

Here are the details:

When: 28 January, 2016 at 9:30 AM

Where: Building 209 Courtyard, 11301 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA

What: Introducing the new West LA VA Campus master plan.

Who: VA Secretary Bob McDonald.