At a town hall meeting hosted Saturday by the Department of Veterans Affairs, former service members spoke of their struggle to receive benefits and medical care for ailments that have worsened as they age.
Joan Lanoie, a 57-year-old veteran in the audience, worried their stories were a window into her own future.
"I don't want what these gentlemen are saying to happen to me," Lanoie, her voice cracking, told a panel of VA officials. "And then I'd have to rely on the VA. . . . I appreciate what you're doing. And I pray to God that somehow it becomes easier for us to be able to access [care] properly."
The forum, held at the VA benefits office in Germantown, was part of a continuing effort by the agency to rebuild trust lost through the national scandal over substandard service and care. It came three weeks after the release of a blistering report from the VA Inspector General on the office, which oversees benefits for 825,000 veterans in eastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware.
Among widespread problems, investigators found dates on claims had been inappropriately manipulated, 31,000 veteran inquiries had been ignored for months, and thousands of pieces of mail had been wrongly marked for shredding.
Diana Rubens, the office's director, has said a majority of the problems had already been fixed and others were being actively addressed. But many of the three dozen veterans in attendance Saturday told Rubens there was still substantial work to be done. She agreed.
"We're making progress," Rubens said after the meeting, which was scheduled for an hour but lasted two. "We're not where we want to be. This is an opportunity for us to ensure we've got clarity on what is it that the veterans are looking for from us."
The stories shared Saturday signaled concerns across the city's VA system, from getting approved for benefits to receiving care at the VA Medical Center in University City.
Raymond Kunz, a 58-year-old Army veteran, said that once in the hospital, the service is superior but getting appointments is difficult. He said when he tried to get an urgent appointment for a kidney stone two weeks ago, he was told there wasn't an opening for a month. He said that he "kicked and screamed" and received an appointment the next day but that he faced delays again when he tried to schedule a follow-up.
"What they said is, 'Here, we'll give you some pain pills, and manage it with pain pills and we'll see you in a couple weeks,' " he said.
Others complained of long waits for decisions on claims for VA benefits.
"Today is 1,221 days that [my claim] has been in appeal," said Ted Henson, 65, a Vietnam veteran. "Since it was received, I've not received any type of information on where it stands."
Henson said he was frustrated more by the lack of communication from the VA than by the delay. He suggested the agency send quarterly letters containing a simple gesture - an apology.
Not all of the feedback was negative. One man who received lung surgery through the VA credited the agency with saving his life. Another, Harry Carter, 67, said he'd been satisfied with his service and suggested many others felt the same.
"I think here as a satisfied vet, I probably represent 1,000 or 10,000 empty seats here," he said. "There are a lot of us who are really happy with what you're doing."