The VA needs our outrage

Shame on Evergreen Cemetery. Two burial plots pre-purchased by the Dudley family were already occupied. The second double-booking came to light early this month when Nana, the family matriarch, died. She had anticipated resting next to her husband of 55 years, Jack, a World War II veteran. But when the space reserved for her turned out not to be vacant, the family opted to relocate the remains of Jack and his adult son so that Nana could lie close to loved ones.

The story pervaded the air waves last weekend and reminded me how Evergreen fell out of favor with my family. In the aftermath of my aunt’s death, the sensitive staffers who keep you from wringing your hands squeezed my cousins for money up front. The memorial mafia got their dough — and due disrepute each time we tell on them.

The Dudleys’ debacle is far more egregious. Exhumations are, by definition, unsettling. But the notion that closure isn’t necessarily final and irrevocable menaced my Memorial weekend. “It’s hard for Bill Dudley to grieve over his loved ones at a place that’s given him so much anguish,” reported WDRB-TV.

“Evergreen Cemetery won’t confirm a mistake,” according to the station. Which is the mother of all mistakes because nothing would restore the lost closure better than honest answers, understanding, contrition and forgiveness.

Silver linings elude such fuster-clucks, but I was heartened to see a rare and precious phenomenon: authentic American outrage. Bill wasn’t suffering in silence. He lost faith in an institution generations of his family had trusted. Airing his disappointment served consumers and made the business more accountable to higher expectations. In summary, it was therapeutic across the board.

Even when time-honored services betray our trust, we’re reluctant to chide publicly. And that’s how our profound gratitude for veterans has intimidated criticism of the Veterans Administration, thus enabling it to become perhaps the most mismanaged federal agency of all. I would argue that it’s our civic duty to scrutinize, review and improve every facet of our government.

To be cynical, jaded and fatalistic is to be part of the problem. Memorial Day stirred reflections on the most important person who’s been missing from my life for 43 years, my father, a World War II veteran-turned-attorney who lived to be an agent of fairness and justice in the world. His body is buried in Evergreen, but he’s in a better place.

If he were alive, I believe he would organize a legal SWAT team to compel the VA to build a new hospital in a better place than Grand Central Gridlock. As an encore, I think he would try to save the VA from its own arrogance. U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, sums up a Denver hospital project on life support. “Right now, the VA is essentially asking taxpayers to bail it out of a massive problem of the department’s own creation,” he wrote. “If that was not bad enough, VA’s bailout request comes absent an explanation of what went wrong in Denver, without having held anyone accountable for the cost of overruns, without a final price tag for the project and without a specified completion date. That is not just a tough sell — it is a nearly impossible one.”

Likewise, the VA’s apparent failure to reconsider the Midlands site selection for the new complex is disappointing if not delusional. Nagging questions concerning a suspicious second appraisal  that inflated the value of the land to $12.9 million 14 months after it was appraised at $9.8 million highlight a crisis of confidence. Other irregularities in the process warrant the scrutiny of congressional investigators. It’s clear that it was developer Jonathan Blue’s raison d’etre to get his group’s 36-acre Midlands site selected and sold. He led consultants and lobbyists in Louisville and Washington, D.C. in an unparalleled push to promote the property and troubleshoot issues.

Until the full scope of Blue’s influence is defined, whether it unfairly advantaged him or otherwise subverted the process will remain unknown. Environmental attorneys and Metro Councilwoman Angela Leet, an environmental engineer, believe the VA violated the National Environmental Policy Act and its own mandates by failing to prepare a comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS). Its superficial reviews generally found no significant impacts — or only impacts that could easily be mitigated in some mythical paradise.

Traffic congestion remains a paramount concern as citizens question whether studies duly projected the impacts of the hospital complex and escalating density in the vicinity of the I-264/U.S. 42 interchange.

The process seemed cursory and hurried, but critics say the only way to cram an elephant into a rabbit hole is fast and dirty.