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VA in Damage Control Once Again after Comparing Veterans to Oscar the Grouch

by Wendy Innes, published

Oscar the Grouch, the cranky Sesame Street character who lives in a garbage can, was used in reference to veterans who attended the mandated town-hall style events in Philadelphia, resulting in plenty of raised eyebrows from several VA employees, who themselves are veterans.

The presentation also drew the ire of veterans groups, who say that the insult is indicative of a bigger problem within the VA, both in Philadelphia and across the country. Following the dust up, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald ordered a review of the materials, ultimately leading to the training presentation's discontinuation.

Employees of the Philadelphia VA, who were going to be staffing last week's town-hall meetings, were shown the 18-slide presentation that portrayed veterans and their families as the perpetually cranky Muppet character, stunning some of the employees.

The presentation, called "What to Say to Oscar the Grouch -- Dealing with Veterans During Town Hall Claims Clinics," covered a variety of topics, most of them mundane, but those present say the Oscar the Grouch theme was woven throughout.

In the presentation, most of the slides had images like a sign reading "CRANKY" that hung from the edge of the slide or Oscar's face with the words, "100% GROUCHY, DEAL WITH IT," shown alongside.

As if the "grouch" image wasn't bad enough, the presentation further went on to paint veterans as dangerous, crazed lunatics, including instructions on how to tell if a veteran is close to having an "outburst," such as "being accusatory, agitated, demanding, or unfocused."

"Don't Get in the Swamp With the Alligator" was the title of another section of the presentation.

The training also included instructions to "take a break" if the stress of dealing with veterans becomes overwhelming as well as a 4-minute relaxation technique, further perpetuating the stereotype of dangerous, unhinged veterans present since the Vietnam era.

Diana Rubens, the new

director of the Philadelphia VA, tried to backpedal just a day later upon opening the first of the town-hall meetings, saying that the presentation was misunderstood and that the message was for VA employees to keep their "inner Oscar" under control.

The VA said that the presentation would no longer be used and apologized for the misunderstanding. Rubens has directed the Philadelphia VA for less than two months.

But veterans and their families weren't buying the explanation. Many said they thought that the presentation minimized the recent scandal of substandard care and was in poor taste. The fact that Rubens tried to make light of the situation when pushed by reporters for answers after the meeting did little to support her claims that it was all a misunderstanding.

When asked where the Oscar the Grouch materials came from, Rubens laughed and said, "I don't know exactly where Oscar the Grouch came from -- Sesame Street, I think."

"I didn't watch it," she added.

When one veteran told Rubens that he had lost hope that the VA would do what is right in regards to his claim for disability, she replied by saying "Ok, and you know what, I really want to try to earn that back if that's what we need to do."

In a statement made the day after the town-hall meeting, McDonald apologized to veterans and said that the image created by this presentation was not conducive to the "kind of open culture we want in the new VA." He said that he has ordered the materials to be discontinued, but did not address Rubens seemingly less-than-sincere explanation.

"Once again, we're forced to ask, 'When will the VA learn?'" said Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.), whose constituents are served by the Philadelphia VA.

It seems that the VA just can't seem to stop insulting the nation's veterans. Joe Davis, public affairs director for Veterans of Foreign Wars says that the VA needs to remember that they serve veterans, not themselves.

"Any employee who believes that ridiculing their ultimate customer will help end the VA's nationwide crisis in care and confidence needs to look for a new line of work," Davis said. "The VA's primary mission is to serve veterans, period."

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