The beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs depicted dissatisfied veterans as Oscar the Grouch in a recent internal training guide, and some vets and VA staffers said Tuesday that they feel trashed.
The cranky Sesame Street character who lives in a garbage can was used in reference to veterans who will attend town-hall events Wednesday in Philadelphia.
"There is no time or place to make light of the current crisis that the VA is in," said Joe Davis, a national spokesman for the VFW. "And especially to insult the VA's primary customer."
The 18-page slide show on how to help veterans with their claims, presented to VA employees Friday and obtained by The Inquirer, also says veterans might be demanding and unrealistic and tells VA staffers to apologize for the "perception" of the agency.
The spokeswoman from the Philadelphia VA benefits office - which will host the town halls Wednesday at noon and 6:30 p.m. - said in a statement that the agency regretted any misunderstanding caused by the slide show.
"The training provided was not intended to equate veterans with this character," spokeswoman Marisa Prugsawan said. "It was intended to remind our employees to conduct themselves as courteously and professionally as possible when dealing with veterans and their concerns."
She said the guide appeared to be an old internal document from which employees at the Philadelphia office pulled information ahead of Friday's training. Prugsawan said she was unsure if the original slide show comparing veterans to Oscar had been created locally or by the national VA office and sent to regional centers.
Whatever its origin, Davis said, the impact is clear. He said the reference "slams the door" on the agency's efforts to repair its relationship with veterans.
Regaining that trust - which has been damaged by the national scandal over substandard service - is the main goal of the town-hall-style meetings being held at every VA hospital and benefits office around the country at the direction of Robert McDonald, the new VA secretary.
In Philadelphia, the VA benefits office in Germantown and the VA hospital in University City have been embroiled in the controversy. Both are under investigation by the VA Office of Inspector General over allegations that staff deliberately masked delays on claims or appointments.
In addition to being an open forum for veterans and their family members, Wednesday's events will include a clinic for claimants to seek help on their cases.
The slide show, "What to Say to Oscar the Grouch - Dealing with Veterans During Town Hall Claims Clinics," was shown to employees who will staff those events.
Most slides touch on routine instructions, including dressing professionally, being polite, showing empathy, and maintaining eye contact.
But the "grouch" theme is maintained throughout.
About a dozen slides include pictures of the misanthropic Muppet in the can he calls home. In one, a sign reading "CRANKY" hangs from the rim. In another, Oscar's face is flanked by the words "100% GROUCHY, DEAL WITH IT."
The presentation includes tips on how to tell if a claimant is nearing an "outburst," including being accusatory, agitated, demanding, or unfocused. One section on dealing with angry claimants is titled "Don't Get in the Swamp With the Alligator."
If the stress of dealing with angry claimants is overwhelming, the employees are instructed to take a break. In addition to the slide show, employees received a handout on coping with stress and a four-minute relaxation technique.
Christian DeJohn, 45, a VA employee who attended the training, said the content stunned him. DeJohn, an Army veteran who served in Bosnia, said the message seemed to be that veterans are irritable and potentially dangerous.
"For a long time, there was a stereotype of Vietnam veterans, that they're mentally unstable and violent, bitter, angry, resentful," he said. "I feel like this is perpetuating some of the worst stereotypes of veterans."
Another veteran and VA employee, who attended the training but asked to not be named because, he said, he feared reprisal, said he understood why some people might have been offended, but that he was not. He said that one of the pictures of Oscar was on a slide that told employees to keep their desks clean, and he said some of the content was useful.
"It was telling us how to talk to people," he said. "You're going to have people who are going to be really upset because their claims haven't been processed."
Several other employees who attended the training did not respond to requests for comment. On Tuesday morning, staff at the office received an e-mail, obtained by The Inquirer, advising them to "not respond directly to any media inquiries."
Most of the town-hall meetings ordered by McDonald will be held in the coming weeks. At the few that have already taken place, discussions have at times turned heated, according to news reports. At others, the tone has seemed cooperative and the content mostly informational.
David Gai, the national communications director for AMVETS, a service organization, said the suggestion that some veterans who attend the events will be grouchy is a small example of a wider issue at the VA: Employees don't understand veterans.
"They're being trained in the procedures and not necessarily the nuances of where the veteran is coming from," he said. "That cultural awareness is sometimes a hard gap to fill."
Davis also said the training guide was representative of a cultural problem. He said most employees would not make light of veterans' concerns.
"But there are some people at the VA who forgot who their ultimate boss is," he said. "And that's the veteran."