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‘Deaf ears’ no longer as veterans confront new director at Manchester VA

  • Craig Meriwether, 56, of Manchester speaks to Manchester VA Medical Center acting director Al Montoya during a town hall listening session at Manchester Community College in Manchester on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Veteran Douglas St. Clair, 74, speaks to Manchester VA Medical Center acting director Al Montoya during a town hall listening session at Manchester Community College in Manchester on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Dennis Martin of Londonderry speaks to Manchester VA Medical Center acting director Al Montoya during a town hall listening session at Manchester Community College in Manchester on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Manchester VA Medical Center acting director Al Montoya listens to audience members during a town hall listening session at Manchester Community College in Manchester on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Tony Woody, 60, of Exeter holds up a packet of documents he says proves of the poor care he has received while speaking to Manchester VA Medical Center acting director Al Montoya during a town hall listening session at Manchester Community College in Manchester on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Army veteran Rodney Demaine, 62, of Manchester speaks to Manchester VA Medical Center acting director Al Montoya during a town hall listening session at Manchester Community College in Manchester on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • U.S. Army veteran Richard Nowakowski of Manchester asks Manchester VA Medical Center acting director Al Montoya about wait time in the Veterans Choice Program and other concerns during a town hall listening session at Manchester Community College in Manchester on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Ted Stachulski speaks to Manchester VA Medical Center acting director Al Montoya about the problems he has encountered treating his traumatic brain injury during a town hall listening session at Manchester Community College in Manchester on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Manchester VA Medical Center acting director Al Montoya listens to audience members during a town hall listening session at Manchester Community College in Manchester on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • State Rep. Al Baldasaro speaks during a town hall listening session with Manchester VA Medical Center acting director Al Montoya at Manchester Community College in Manchester on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • U.S. Army veteran Richard Nowakowski of Manchester asks Manchester VA Medical Center acting director Al Montoya about wait time in the Veterans Choice Program and other concerns during a town hall listening session at Manchester Community College in Manchester on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Manchester VA Medical Center acting director Al Montoya answers a question during a town hall listening session at Manchester Community College in Manchester on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)



Monitor staff
Thursday, July 27, 2017

Craig Meriwether had only just arrived at his first drill with the Army reserves in September 1990 when he learned the news that permanently altered the course of his life.

In three days, he’d leave behind his wife and kids – as young as three months old – to ship across the globe to the Gulf War.

When he returned home, he suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder – although he was told he was “too strong” for that to be the case – and his life spiraled out of control, he said.

“Mental problems, divorce, prison. I went from being a CO (corrections officer) to an inmate,” Meriwether, 56, said, adding that he ended up chronically homeless.

He was experiencing suicidal thoughts when he checked into the Bedford VA Medical Center in Massachusetts and spent three weeks there. The only after-care available to him upon his discharge was a combination program for mental health and substance abuse, which he said didn’t fit his needs, so he returned home to Manchester, seeking intensive, personalized follow-up. All they offered him was group therapy, he said.

Meriwether was one of a group of veterans who stood before the Manchester VA Medical Center’s new acting director, Al Montoya, on Wednesday to give his administration a to-do list and – in some cases – an earful.

Montoya, who previously led the White River Junction, Vt., veterans hospital, was in his eighth day on the job after Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin removed the hospital’s top two leaders and ordered a top-to-bottom review following a Boston Globe report on a whistleblower complaint filed by physicians.

While some veterans relayed positive experiences during the town hall-style meeting at Manchester Community College, others complained of slow treatment, poor communication, ineffective employees and an overreliance on drugs.

Tony Woody, 60, of Exeter, who was deemed totally disabled by the military, said he was prescribed large doses of morphine and oxycodone to dull the chronic pain of 22 years in the Navy.

Woody, who was a flight engineer on a spy plane, was taking as many as 16 medications a day, he said. But he eventually weaned off the drugs in favor of acupuncture and chiropractic treatments that he said better served his pain and his life – until he was informed that those out-of-network treatments were no longer covered, he said.

“I’m your poster boy on how to manage chronic pain without using medications,” he said, adding that he’d gone to the attorney general’s office to report that he thought the coverage was rescinded illegally.

Meriwether similarly said he’s allergic to the medication that was prescribed him, and has therefore had to find alternative treatments and pay for them out of pocket. His was one of several concerns voiced about mental health treatment at the hospital.

“For them to not have an intensive, outpatient program or a partial hospitalization program, to me, is just ludicrous,” he said, “and to think that everything can be solved with group therapy.”

Montoya pledged to the veterans that their concerns would be reviewed and that he would emphasize more open communication. He relayed his cellphone number to the hundreds-strong crowd.

“My promise to you is that this is the first of many town halls,” he said.

Meriwether said that when Montoya looked him in the eye, he believed the new boss would do what he can to fix the Manchester VA.

“However, the systemic problems are above his pay grade,” he added.

That’s why Meriwether said when Shulkin, the national VA secretary, comes to New Hampshire next week, “I’ll be here to hold his feet to the fire.”

He’s hoping the newfound spotlight on the VA will carry forward the momentum needed for meaningful reform.

“When I read the story, I was so relieved, because I’d been saying the same thing – but falling on deaf ears,” Meriwether said.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)