More than 40 years after serving his country in the Vietnam War, John Rowan and many of his fellow veterans are facing a new terrifying reality at home: surviving the coronavirus pandemic.
Like thousands of Vietnam-era veterans, Rowan is entering his mid-70’s and suffers from preexisting conditions, meaning he faces a significantly higher risk of death if he contracts the coronavirus.
“It felt like I had a target on my back,” Rowan, the president of Vietnam Veterans of America, told CNN. “Older male with preexisting conditions. That’s me and every Vietnam veteran I know practically.”
When the coronavirus outbreak first reached the US earlier this year, the Department of Veterans Affairs acted quickly to implement restrictive measures at hundreds of nursing homes around the country in an effort to lower the risk of exposure to the virus among older veterans who are particularly vulnerable to infection.
But months later, there is still a growing fear that older veterans remain at risk, especially after the VA released disturbing new numbers this week. At least 985 coronavirus patients have died after receiving some type of care from VA medical facilities, which serve more than six million people across the country.
If the VA hospitals and state-run nursing homes were a state, it would rank 16th for total coronavirus deaths, according to the data available.
And outside of the federal system, the number of veteran deaths at state-run nursing homes has skyrocketed in recent weeks.
“This disease once it got into these nursing homes, these veteran homes before anybody knew it, it was running rampant,” Rowan said.
Veterans advocacy groups have raised questions about various elements of the VA’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, including its initial handling of the outbreak and its continued use of hydroxychloroquine to treat the virus despite warnings from health officials that it may do more harm than good.
Among the most important, however, are concerns related to VA’s oversight of state-run facilities.
More than 550 residents of veterans nursing homes across the country have died from the virus, according to a report from the Vietnam Veterans of America, which notes not all states are reporting their numbers.
Families of those residents have been forced to face unfathomable and painful realities as their loved ones fight for their lives.
Sometimes families have been kept in the dark as they wait to hear about whether their family member is still alive, as was the case in Holyoke, Massachusetts where more than 70 residents have died from Covid-19.
“I took a grease crayon and wrote on my car: is my father alive? shame on you, soldiers home,” Susan Kenney, whose 78-year-old father, Air Force veteran Charlie Lowell, died after being diagnosed with pneumonia at the Holyoke Soldier’s home, told CNN affiliate WCVB.
Despite the fact that these state-run facilities receive partial funding and oversight from the VA, department Secretary Robert Willkie is bucking blame and instead pointing the finger at local governments he says are responsible.
“We take complaints when we hear complaints … we cannot impose our will on those state venues,” Wilkie said in an interview on Fox News earlier this month.
VA spokesperson Christina Noel told CNN that federal law states the VA “shall have no authority over the management or control of any State (Veterans) home.” And that individual states, not the federal government “are solely responsible for the operation and management of state-run Veterans homes and any problems that arise within them.”
“VA operates and oversees 134 of its own nursing homes – known as community living centers – across the country. These homes are separate from state-run Veterans homes and benefitted from important early steps we took to prevent the spread of Covid-19, such as a strict limitation on visitors, including family members. As a result, many VA nursing homes have few, if any, Covid-19 cases,” the spokesperson added.
But former VA Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning, Linda Schwartz, pushed back on Wilkie’s comments, saying the secretary can create and enforce guidelines to hold these homes accountable.
“They have the authority to make changes, and they have in the past,” she told CNN. “There is a real need to do an analysis of what is going on. It can’t be something that takes years, it has to be now. Taking care of veterans is a great honor and responsibility.”
“(It’s) sad to think how many we will be mourning this year who died because of a virus and not on the battlefield. In a way, the battlefield is in the streets of America today,” Schwartz added.
Asked if there is anything the department wishes it could have done better, Noel said: “VA grieves for all of the Veterans and loved ones affected by this heartbreaking situation.”
CNN’s Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.