Veterans: Selection of commissioners should be redone

Some Missouri veterans aren't happy with the way Gov. Eric Greitens chose the five new members of the Missouri Veterans Commission, and they want the state Senate to have the governor redo the process.

Late last year, following an independent investigation into operations of the commission's St. Louis Veterans Home confirmed some problems residents and their families had been complaining about for months, Greitens replaced the five commissioners who had been serving beyond the end of their terms.

Three of the new commissioners had served on The Mission Continues, the charity the governor founded after he left the U.S. Navy, and the other two new members are doctors who also have military experience.

The other four commissioners are lawmakers chosen by Senate and House leaders, and not subject to the governor's appointment.

At issue for those unhappy with the five new commissioners is a state law that Dewey Riehn, long-time legislative chairman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and others had lobbied for several years ago.

It requires the governor to appoint five veterans "from lists of nominees recommended by each of the statewide veterans' organizations incorporated in this state, chartered by Congress, or authorized under Title 38, United States Code."

"I do not object to these people as individuals," Riehn said during an impromptu meeting of veterans organizations that followed Monday's scheduled meeting of the Missouri Association of Veterans Organizations (MAVO).

"I object to the process that was used to select them," he explained. "You know that we sweated blood and tears getting this statute changed to read where it was definitive that the Missouri veterans service organizations would have a voice in the selection process of commissioners."

However, that didn't happen with Greitens' new appointees, he said.

Instead, critics argued, the governor relied only on recommendations from the American Red Cross, which Riehn and others said was not a "veterans" organization.

However, he acknowledged, the Red Cross is included in the list of organizations authorized by Title 38 of the federal code, so the governor didn't break the law.

"I want the intent of the statute followed," Riehn said, adding he and others weren't aware the Title 38 language was part of the law.

Shawn Lee, a veteran who became an attorney and who serves as MAVO's vice chairman, said: "We have a diverse population of veterans.

"The needs of the post-9/11 veterans are different (and) the commission has proceeded along with an antiquated method of treating Missouri's veterans."

Lee said he's "pushing hard for change, to reflect the new problems that the post-9/11 generation of veterans faces."

Riehn said, "I work a lot with the younger veteran population.

"What I tell them is, 'Get active with your local veterans organization, if you are really interested in veterans' issues, because it works.'"

Some who attended the meeting said they know veterans who have been rejected by service organizations, because of different viewpoints of the different combat experiences of older and younger veterans.

Lee said, "We could not get change at the Missouri Veterans Commission (for years), and now change has arrived, and we have traditional organizations with traditional methods of doing things, fighting against that change."

While he and his supporters "certainly respect these organizations," Lee said, "sometimes you have to push for change, over objections."

MAVO is designed to discuss and comment on legislation that affects Missouri's veterans, but there were objections when two speakers wanted to talk about issues at the St. Louis home.

Former state Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, was allowed to finish his presentation, but Frank Clark, 91 years old and a World War II veteran, was not allowed to address the group, on a 9-3 vote of the organizations attending the meeting.

MAVO members did hear from Tim Noonan, of St. Louis, the new commission chairman who noted commissioners heard progress reports from the directors of all seven state veterans homes.

In December, after Greitens replaced the former commissioners with the new members, Larry Kay, the commission's long-time executive director, resigned.

The new commission hired National Guard Col. Grace Link as the interim director, and Rolando Carter, the St. Louis home's director, was placed on a leave of absence.

Especially for those who had not attended the commission's meeting Monday, Noonan said: "What we heard was the incredible work that's being done on the front lines (and) we heard common themes. I'd like to share some data (that) has happened within the last 30 days (including) a 95 percent reduction of mandatory overtime in the St. Louis home.

"A 10 percent increase in the number of nursing staff, just through better scheduling."

He reported an 80 percent reduction in the number of veterans suffering pressure wounds from constantly lying or sitting in the same position, and a 35 percent reduction in the number of cases where a patient fell.

The improvements, he said, are "the result of a change in leadership."

Noonan added, "The reason that we know we're making progress is that it was called to our attention by the families - (and) those families raised questions.

"And we're starting to listen, and we're starting to build trust."