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HOT SPRINGS – After nearly a year of being on the defensive about its mission, the Save the VA group that met with Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Jan. 28 reversed course. A different approach, solid support from the community and from the Congressional delegation – and perhaps an extended olive branch of understanding – solidified the group’s feeling after the meeting.

“We couldn’t have had a better response if we had scripted it,” said group member Don Ackerman.

The five people that carried the Hot Springs Save the VA fight to Washington, D.C. will make the same presentation tonight, Feb. 5, starting at 6:30 p.m. in the theater at the Mueller Civic Center, sharing the strategy that they feel made a very positive impression on Shinseki and the congressional delegates in attendance.

Last Thursday night, for the first time since leaving the meeting, the five participants – Ackerman, Pat Russell, Bob Nelson, Amanda Campbell and Rich Gross - got together to talk about what they thought were the turning events and where the Save the VA group goes from here.

From the start

“When we found out in December that we would be meeting with Sec. Shinseki, our committee began discussing strategy,” said Russell, the president of the VA employees union council. Originally, the plan was for the four men to go to Washington with Oglala Sioux President Bryan Brewer. When Brewer was involved in an auto accident, his portion of the presentation was filmed and Campbell was added for her expertise in the area of the historic aspect of the VA.

“We need to point out that although Bryan was not there physically,” Ackerman said, “he was with us.”

“Bryan’s video began our presentation and really set the tone,” Russell added. “His portion was dynamic and pivotal,” Ackerman said.

What was presented Jan. 28 was a much distilled version of what came out of early meetings. Changes were forced by time limitations, while adaptations were suggested by Governor Dennis Daugaard during his visit to Hot Springs on Jan. 24.

They realized very early in the process that the same approach of defending the Save the VA proposal was not going to work in this instance. And it was a conscious decision by the group to not discuss what their new approach - using the facts in the VA’s original proposal and showing how they were incorrect - was going to be.

The different approach

“We had to be secretive,” Ackerman said. “That’s why we were successful; because we kept things secret. That’s not what this group is all about but we felt strongly the bottom line was to use facts and keep our presentation under wraps.”

That intuition paid off from the start, according to the group.

Ackerman had met and briefed Shinseki before and understood how the Secretary worked. “He had his book – I call it a ‘battle book’” Ackerman said. “In that book he had his staff prepare a counter to every step of our proposal. He had everything he was going to use to beat us up.”

Shortly into Russell’s presentation, however, Ackerman saw Shinseki quietly close his book. “Pat did his first slide and Shinseki looked at his book. Second slide and another look,” Ackerman said. “After the third slide he quit looking. From that point on we had his attention.”

The group made the presentation factual, using the VA’s information to counter its proposal – to show that a series of management decisions had led to the current position - without making a personal attack on anyone. It was advice received from Governor Daugaard that was taken. In fact, it was Ackerman, one of the most outspoken opponents of the VA hierarchy that extended the olive branch to Shinseki.

“Pat talked about how the VA proposal shows declining rural numbers,” Campbell said, “but that the central office and every veterans’ organization shows the numbers of rural veterans rising nationwide. Bob followed with his presentation on other poor management decisions.”

“After Amanda noted that if the VA closed the Hot Springs campus,” Nelson added, “it would be the first governmental agency to close a National Landmark, Don spoke.”

“I simply said, ‘Mr. Secretary, veteran to veteran we are not attacking you,” Ackerman repeated. “We are attacking the folks you inherited.’ He saw us differently from that point.”

Gross concluded the presentation, tying the other group members’ portions together. “I told him that we were not his enemy. That our proposal shows where we want to go and what we want to do, if the VA will just work with us on this,” Gross said.

Campbell said that the easy thing to do would have been to come out swinging, but the group realized that it was representing the community and it would have to walk a thin line.

“We showed that the situation came about because of management decisions that were made 15 years ago,” Campbell said. “By taking their information, breaking it down and looking at it from a management perspective, we made the point that this was not personal.”

Campbell said S.D. Senator John Thune helped the group’s case, by making a statement that had been edited out of Nelson’s portion of the presentation.

“He (Senator Thune) said that all of the reading he had done and the information he had seen showed what he called a ‘systematic dismantling’ of the VA services in Hot Springs,” Campbell said. “We didn’t want to bring it up, and then he did. It was powerful.”

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Immediate response

When the presentation was concluded, the congressional delegation in attendance – Senators Tim Johnson and Thune, Representative Kristi Noem and Governor Daugaard of South Dakota; Senators John Barrasso and Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Senator Mike Johanns – each shared their belief of the high quality of the Save the VA group’s presentation.

“For me that was the most memorable part,” Russell said. “Senator Johanns, who has held a cabinet position as well as the governorship of Nebraska, told Sec. Shinseki that he thought he had just witnessed the best presentation he had ever seen. That wasn’t just a phrase he would just toss out.”

Gross said that Johann’s words also stuck with him and that Senator Johnson had spoken about the Hot Springs legacy of treatment and the continuing work with PTSD.

“Senator Thune also told Sec. Shinseki “Listen to what these folks are saying,’” Campbell added.

Charting the course

With the Washington, D.C. meeting behind them, next up for the Save the VA group is continuing the battle. Plans are to take the presentation to as many places as possible, to gather numbers of veterans and to mobilize the various organizations.

“We started as a grass roots organization and have added some political connection,” Gross said. “We have to continue that and to build upon it. We climbed to this plateau and now we have a higher hill to climb.”

“The various veterans groups need to get motivated,” Russell said. “We have to get the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans, the Veterans of Foreign Wars – all of them – to take a position local and at the state and national levels. This is not just about Hot Springs. This has happened before, in Knoxville, Iowa, in North Platte, Nebraska. If they don’t get behind this now, they may look around some day and wonder where all of their VA medical centers have gone.”

“The largest problem I see now is some mechanism to converse with Sec. Shinseki now,” Ackerman said “(Black Hills Health Care Systems Director Steve) DiStasio and Murphy (Veterans Integrated Services Network 23 Director Janet) have lost all credibility. We have no chain with his staff to connect with him; I see that as a problem.”

The final presentation made by the group was a jump drive with all of the supporting data for its presentation, as well as Brewer’s video message. Each person in attendance received a device, enclosed in a traditional Lakota medicine bag.”

“Senator Johnson picked up right away on what it was,” Russell said. “He (Johnson) said it was a traditional Lakota Healing.”

“Then Pat told the Secretary that all the medicine he needed to fix the problem was in that medicine bag,” Nelson said.

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