The revelations about falsified patient treatment lists and agonizing tales of dying veterans forced to wait months for appointments rocked the Department of Veterans Affairs in recent weeks, and the debacle reached a pinnacle of drama Friday, when President Barack Obama accepted VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation.
But the VA issues are far from solved, and many say the real solutions must come from a complete overhaul of a broken system.
If that is true, the overhaul must include a silent group, too sick to even ask for help.
The VA scandal has focused on veterans who are at times deathly ill, but still well enough mentally and emotionally and have the wherewithal to make the request for care. But there are thousands of homeless veterans who roam the streets of America night after night, having completely fallen between the cracks of a broken veterans health care system.
Photographer Jerry Tovo has captured their worn and weathered faces for the last three years.
Tovo spends his own money traveling from city to city to find homeless veterans and highlight their situations in an attempt to raise awareness for better care and programs.
“I think politicians can have tunnel vision at times, they have their goals and their projects, so it’s difficult to make a convincing argument to someone that things have to change if they are only halfway paying attention,” he told TheBlaze.
Tovo’s project, “They May Have Been Heroes,” attempts to raising the awareness to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of homeless veterans in America today by “photographing, videotaping and otherwise recording their stories.” Through his exhibit, Tovo hopes to get concerned citizens to support programs designed for shelter, education, rehabilitation, job training and re-socialization for the “too many American patriots currently doing without the basic necessities,” the project site states.
“The guys just don’t want to deal with the VA. Many of them have had at least one or two brief encounters with the VA, but it’s a cold environment, there isn’t a personal relationship. You go in there as a number, they look at your forms, they check your DD214, they shuttle you around — and I don’t think it’s necessarily their intention — I just think they have so many people to deal with there’s no other way to herd them all through,” Tovo told TheBlaze.
Tovo said much of the current VA interaction with veterans reminds him of the Vietnam-era Army mentality.
“There was a herd mentality, they loaded us all up into cattle trucks and they took us here and they took us there and they herded us into the mess halls, and I think that sort of carries on a little bit,” he said.
Tovo, a veteran himself, served as a drill instructor during the Vietnam War, and the experience left a haunting emotional remnant.
“I had a moment one day where I realized, I’m training these kids to be sent to die, so I better take this seriously,” he said.
After completing his service, Tovo became a photographer, and 30 years later, found a calling to raise awareness about veteran homelessness.
“The seed of this idea was planted in 1966, ’68 when I served in the Army as a drill sergeant … I was in the Army, I was planning to be a photographer, but it took all these years for this vision to come to fruition,” he said. Tovo told TheBlaze his ultimate goal is to bring the exhibit to the nation’s capital so lawmakers would have a chance to see the pain in the veterans’ faces up close, but he has exhausted his savings to make it happen.
“I realized this was a golden opportunity to lend my skills as a photographer on what is generally some gritty-looking subject matter, and just maybe if I have a show of highly evocative images … then we can change some people’s minds, or maybe smack some people upside the head who aren’t paying attention, and get the ball rolling,” he said.
The VA initially partnered with Tovo and his project, seeming to show interest in partnering to share the narrative of homeless veterans and potential solutions, and even helping Tovo find some of the homeless veterans for his images. But Tovo said the VA eventually just stopped returning his calls.
“The only thing we can thing we can assume is they somehow thought our effort was counterproductive to what they were trying to do,” he said. “Seeing the big picture has been a failure on many, many occasions. They should have seen that we could have held up this banner that says ‘Look what’s out there, look what we’re up against, look how hard we’re working to stop (homelessness),’ but they shut us down.”
Multiple attempts by TheBlaze to seek comment from the Veterans Affairs department were not answered. So far, more than 36,000 people have seen Tovo’s exhibit in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. But Tovo says he won’t rest until he can bring the faces of these homeless veterans to Capitol Hill.
“We’ll do whatever we can to bring this message to D.C. … we’ve always said we’re just putting a face on the homeless. Occasionally you might see a fuzzy image in a newspaper, but until you look into these eyes and see the scope and scale that we have it, you can’t appreciate the despair and the emotion,” he said.
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