BY MAUREEN N. MARATITA
For the Journal
Public statements have been made by federal officials to U.S. veterans and leaders in Micronesia through the years concerning services and veteran hospitals, but have not been carried through.
Some veterans have a positive experience after their military service, but for many veterans in the islands in Micronesia responses to their health care and disability needs fall short and help is not always at hand where they live.
On Feb. 2, while in Washington D.C. Gov. Lourdes A. Leon Guerrero met with Tanya Bradsher, chief of staff to Secretary Denis McDonough of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
She said at a press conference on Feb. 9, “I approached them about the possibility of having a Regional Benefits Service Center here on Guam to directly take applications and claims. And not only for Guam Veterans but also for CNMI and the other sovereign island nations, as there are other veterans that need to be serviced, including veterans from the Philippines.
“And then I proceeded to inform them about my vision for the medical complex center — and to help in any way so that we can stand up a veterans’ clinic in that medical complex.”
The governor also discussed the need for Guam’s Veterans Cemetery to be expanded, as the property is running out of space, she said.
The Guam Veterans Affairs Office coordinates veteran services and claims in Guam, as well as assisting active-duty personnel and dependents through a variety of programs.
Acting Director Stephanie Flores told the Journal the office is making progress.
“Securing a larger budget has allowed us to increase the staff at the cemetery for a more aggressive maintenance schedule,” she said.
“Additionally, a recent grant from the Department of Interior through the Guam State Clearinghouse will train 10 more Veterans Affairs Accredited Service Representatives.” The grant will help increase the organization’s reach to “more veterans especially with access to healthcare and disability claims” and provide online management systems to keep up-to-date information effectively and efficiently, she said.
Flores estimated there are 28,000 veterans in Guam. “While the total number of veterans is unknown, we take into account each person that enlists,” she said. The number of veterans from elsewhere is also estimated, she said.
Accounting for all veterans in Guam is a priority, Flores said. “A definitive number of veterans will open doors for more funding from our federal partners and allow for increased recognition from grantors to improve the overall services provided from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies that can provide assistance to our office.” She did not say how that tally would be achieved.
As to technical progress, Flores said a Memorandum of Understanding between the Utah VA Administration and the Guam OVA — in cooperation with the Government of Guam’s Office of Technology — has been signed. “The next step is the release of the database to the Office of Technology to upload data pertinent to Guam. All veteran records will be scanned into the system, which allows the office to update veteran records and make them readily available when required.”
Future initiatives will include the cemeteries, Flores said. Work will aim at “improving the U.S. Navy Memorial Cemetery in East Hagatna by building a seawall to prevent storm surges and mitigate the river wall, preventing erosion of current infrastructure and protecting the grave Additionally, plans are “to build on the current footprint of the Guam Veterans Cemetery [in Piti], including building a capacity of 1,200 additional crypts for use within the next five to three years, and mitigate current drainage and ground plots.” After what Flores said was a thorough assessment of the veterans cemetery, he said, “We have determined that the budget is prioritized toward equipment necessary for burials, followed by the supplies needed to operate the cemetery administration office.”
The Guam OVA office has nine employees.
Veteran organizations say what they also need are medical services on-island. A previous initiative for a veteran facility in Guam was unsuccessful.
After his work as chairman of the Guam Hospital Development Forum and president and chairman of the board of the Guam Hospital Development Forum which led to the Guam Regional Medical City, Peter R. Sgro Jr., president and chairman of the board of International Group Inc., turned his attention to a veteran’s hospital in Guam, and stood up another group and board.
He took as his model the District Court of Guam, the first federal court building to be developed that involved a public-private partnership structure. Sgro said, “Not only were stringent design requirements put in place, but the method of financing, developing and maintaining Guam’s and later other district courts started a whole new era of certain federal developments.”
Sgro thought to apply a similar model to improve the standard of care for veterans. “It is no secret that per capita Guam has the highest number of veterans, and that number is growing.” Per capita Guam had the highest number of deaths in the Vietnam War, yet U.S. Veterans Affairs leadership in Honolulu has consistently settled with providing an extremely low standard of care for our veterans.”
His goal was to convince the VA to initiate a competitive bidding process for the private financing, private development, private construction and private management of a larger veterans’ clinic, initially a 30 acute care bed hospital and a behavioral and wellness center, he said. “In return, the VA would lease these facilities for 30 years, which would correspond to the term of the private equity bond financing.”
Since the source of re-payment of the debt would be a federal funding source, financing would be relatively easy, he said.
His efforts did not meet with success.
“I presented this model years ago to the leadership at VA healthcare, whose offices are at Tripler Hospital in Honolulu.” He was not warmly received, Sgro said. “In fact, they were not only dismissive, but suggested our veterans really did not care, since a low percentage were signed up for benefits. Nevertheless, when I returned to Guam from Honolulu, we started a veterans registration drive at the Liberation Day parade, at the malls and even made house calls to veterans wanting to be registered.”
Sgro initially continued.
“Through several veterans and certain veteran organizations, I was able to meet VA officials in Washington, D.C. as well as staff of some members of the Senate,” who were much more receptive, he said. Sgro found himself dealing with “the realities of politics,” he said. “It was towards the end of the Obama Administration and although many of the people I met were receptive, their focus was on securing employment after politics.”
Support from Guam groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars can provide social and practical support to veterans. Other groups in Guam include the American Legion’s Mid-Pacific Post 1 in Tamuning, the 3rd Marine Division Association, Iraq Afganistan and Persian Gulf Veterans of the Pacific, and the Navy League of Guam. Many meet monthly as part of the Guam Veterans Commission — a state organization that represents all veterans.
VFW Post 1509 is in Yigo Town Center, adjacent to the Bank of Guam, and attracts members of the public as well as members of its post. Post 2917 meets at people’s houses. Both posts have moved locations through the years.
Al Mosser, originally from Pennsylvania, aged 68, served 24 years in the U.S. Air Force, retiring as an E7 and master sergeant. “I joined in 1975, right before the end of [the]Vietnam [War] and retired in 1995”, he told the Journal. His path took him from Clark Air Base in the Philippines to Germany to Guam.
Phil Toney, aged 70, joined the U.S. Army in 1968 and served in Vietnam for 13 months and Germany. He left the Army and joined the U.S. Navy in 1971, serving 23 years. Toney retired as an E7 with the rank of chief petty officer. “I retired in 1992 from the Navy … from the Pentagon. I was on Gen. [Colin] Powell’s personal staff.” Toney then joined the U.S. Navy’s Merchant Marines. “I rode four different ships out of Guam,” he said.
Both took advantage of educational opportunities. Toney went to college while serving and Mosser used the GI Bill while in the military.
After Mosser retired, he said, “I was running a bomb demilitarizing contract up at Andersen, and I was running a small trucking company. I also ran a bar — the Bombers Tavern — all at the same time. I was busy.” Mosser also worked in Oman and Qatar as a contractor overseeing munitions storage.
Both said their time in the U.S. military gave them careers for life. Mosser said it gave him “lots of options.” And Toney said the military offered “lots of opportunities.”
As to access to medical care, Mosser said neither he nor Toney have problems. “We are retirees.” As such, the pair can access Naval Hospital Guam. Mosser said, “The people that are having problems are the veterans that are not retired. They did their four years or six years; some of them did 12, maybe some 16. … The problem that they’re having is getting their paperwork through so that people can get their healthcare. …They need to streamline the bureaucracy.”
Tomey said there are a lot of veterans in Guam whose issues need to be addressed. “It’s a slow process with the Veterans Administration. … Some of them are like walking wounded. It should be addressed, but it’s slow in coming, especially from the Veterans Administration.”
Mosser is junior vice commander for Post 1509 and both veterans are lifetime members of the VFW. The post’s aim is to buy land and build its own building, Mosser said.
“I think Guam is moving in the right direction on all veteran-associated problems.” Mosser said. Veterans’ organizations are now taking a more proactive approach, he said.
Toney said Post 1509 welcomes all. “We’re actually a group of veterans that care. Come in and socialize, network — there’s a lot of people that come in here that are contractors, real estate people.” …“A lot of people don’t know that we’re here and most of them are vets. There are resources here. We can help. We can point them in the right direction.”
Guam veterans are taking advantage of the GI Bill for education at Guam Community College, where they have a student adviser and a student veterans club. While the pandemic reduced registration numbers, an average of 30 to 40 currently register every semester. Students not only graduate, but move on to further studies, the Journal was told.
Roland “RoRo” Ada, aged 42, served four years in the National Guard in Guam on active duty and then served 12 years as a combat medic in the U.S. Army. He served in Korea and Germany. “I was deployed twice out of Germany to Iraq. I went to Hawaii — at Tripler [Army Medical Center] and got out from there.”
He retired in March 2013 as an E5, with the rank of sergeant and with 100% medical disability. Ada’s entry into the veteran community was through the VFW. “Then I started coming to the Veterans Commission Meetings and now I’m the first vice president of the Veterans Commission,” he said. Ada also works with the AmeriCorps Vet Corps program.
Jose “Joe” San Agustin, aged 61, served in the U.S. Marine Corps from June 1979 and retired in August 2009. He was a communicator with a variety of instructional duties. “I was stationed in San Diego for the longest time and in Okinawa. As I continued to climb up the ranks, I ended up being an adviser to the commanding general of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force and adviser to the commanding officer to the Expeditionary Warfare Training Group Pacific at Coronado.” San Agustin is a Desert Shield/Desert Storm veteran and was in Iraq for 12 months. He retired at the rank of E9 as a master gunnery sergeant.
San Agustin worked as a canine explosives dog handler for Lockheed, with a private security company and was the director of the Guam Department of Corrections from 2011 to 2016. “When I left DOC, I was called to be the administrator of the Guam Veterans Affairs Office. I am currently the chairperson of the Guam Veterans Commission … and I’m farming.”
Daniel T. Mendiola, aged 79, served in the U.S. Navy from 1962 and served in Vietnam. “I stayed with the helicopter Army Aviation Combat Service Support.” He retired as an E8 with the rank of first sergeant and became a Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps instructor.
“When I got out in 1985, I was involved with the VFW almost instantly. I joined the Vietnam Veterans of America, of which I’m the president now — for 10 years already,” Mendiola said. He is also second vice president of the Veterans Commission and is a former chairman.
San Agustin said, “We are working towards making it an effective commission; right now, we have so many challenges.” He said the commission’s aim is to support the Guam Veterans Affairs Office. The office has always had to deal with turnover which leads to change of priorities, he said.
But the major problem for veterans is healthcare, the three said. Naval Hospital Guam is a hospital for active-duty personnel, dependents and retirees. Many people who have served in the military have access to medical care through the VA’s Community Based Outpatient Clinic outside Naval Hospital Guam.
Mendiola said there is cooperation between the two facilities. “They have a Memorandum of Understanding between the clinic and Naval Hospital to take care of veterans when they can.” However, when that caused long waits, lab work was outsource to Diagnostic Laboratory Services Inc. “It’s hard to get outsourcing from anywhere,” Mendiola said.
Ada said that for emergencies treatment transfer to Hawaii can be quick. But on an ongoing basis, he said. “We don’t have enough doctors — we don’t have enough clinicians here for the number of veterans here.” There are other issues, he said. “We need a prosthetic clinic here. There are some amputees that can’t be seen here; we don’t have that opportunity.” An endocrinologist to treat diabetes is needed, he said. “They need a better PTSD facility or training here. … They would send veterans from here to Hawaii to get the treatment,” he said, but there is no continuity of treatment on return.
San Agustin said Guam needs to find a way to be self-sustaining. “Whatever funds need to go to the veterans of Guam need to be funneled this way, so that the services can be provided here.” mbj