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Augusta’s VA medical center responds to veteran complaints



SAVANNAH, Ga. – The Department of Veterans Affairs has come under fire over the years. And while some veterans say they’ve seen significant improvements, others say it’s still a struggle just to get the very basics.

A Statesboro vet says he waited months just to get a pair of eyeglasses.

“I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to get something I earned, and I deserve with my blood being shed on a foreign land,” said Benjamin Whittington. “And I’ve got nothing to show for it.”

Whittington, a 71-year-old Vietnam veteran, says it took him more than three months just to get a pair of glasses through the V.A. Whittington broke his last pair during the COVID shutdown. He says, after he tried to get the job done locally at an eye doctor in Statesboro, they told him he had to drive all the way to Augusta to get fitted – a 170-mile drive round-trip.

Finally, after months of waiting, he got the glasses in the mail. Whittington blames the wait on COVID restrictions, miscommunications, and a total lack of accountability on the part of the VA.

“It’s always something with them.” Whittington says this isn’t the first time he’s battled the VA. Upon returning from Vietnam in 1971, he says they botched his paperwork. Instead of recording his active duty start date as Sept. 13, 1968, they put down 1971. That meant for years it showed he had only served for 11 days. The VA later amended his records. But Whittington says it took him more than a decade to get it fixed, and paperwork he showed WTOC indicates he wasn’t fully-covered until 1991.

“I was already suffering from PTSD,” Whittington said. “Now, I have the people who are supposed to be responsible for taking care of those telling me I’m not service connected.”

Chatham County Veterans Council Chair Joe Higgins says while the V.A. has come a long way, there’s still room for improvement.

“While they give you benefits and take care of you, they don’t necessarily explain how the process works,” said Higgins.

Ironically, Higgins’ says his first medical struggle with the V.A. was also over a pair of glasses. He says it took him two months to get his.

“It was a frustrating first experience, because you don’t know how the process works,” said Higgins. “But, as you go through, you start to figure it out, and it gets a little easier.”

Higgins says navigating the VA is hard enough for younger veterans, like him. He thinks the VA needs to do more to help older veterans, like Whittington.

“When you start to think about the Vietnam veterans, your Korea veterans, the World War II veterans we still have floating around… it’s got to be frustrating. Because the VA, while they are improving their processes, they’re mostly improving it online. So, it’s definitely harder for those guys to navigate that.” Whittington says he doesn’t want to see other veterans struggle to get basic care, like he has.

“We have a struggle here that’s common for us who serve in the military,” said Whittington, “to come home and do what we have to do to survive.”

WTOC reached out to the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta. A spokesman told us they cannot comment on a specific case, such as Whittington’s. Here’s what he did tell us:

  1. A recent survey shows the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center has a 79% satisfaction rating.
  2. The average wait time for optometry is 21 days.
  3. They tell WTOC that COVID has not had an impact on their quality of care, citing an expansion in virtual care.
  4. They say the center is not understaffed or underfunded.