Empower Wisconsin | Jan. 10, 2023
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — In announcing the appointment Monday of James Bond as his new secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, Gov. Tony Evers made sure to note that Bond would be the first “openly LGBTQ (gay) individual” to serve as a state cabinet secretary.
While Evers checked off an important liberal virtue signaling box, he failed to mention that Bond has been the No. 2 ranking official at a troubled state agency that has veterans deaths on its hands.
Mike Mikalsen, spokesman for state Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), vice-chair of the Senate’s Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, said the senator will not support Bond’s confirmation. The VA bureaucrat has for the past four years served as deputy secretary of a department that has been cited for the maltreatment of some of Wisconsin’s most vulnerable citizens.
Mikalsen said there’s no evidence the senator’s office has seen that Bond made any attempt to redirect his former boss, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Mary Kolar, out of the mess the agency has made, particularly at the state-run veterans homes in King and Union Grove. Kolar quietly retired late last month amid reports that more veterans had died in part from neglect and poor care.
“With the issues we’ve seen at the veterans homes, Sen. Nass’ view is there’s no way this guy is the right selection of an agency in need of major overhaul, an agency not meeting its obligation to veterans,” Mikalsen told Empower Wisconsin. “We’re not talking about paperwork mistakes here. We’re talking about the actual care of veterans and veterans lives put in danger.
“The administration, frankly, thinks the public is just that naive to trumpet the alphabet soup of this man’s background and that no one is going to care that he was second-in-command wile the entire operation was folding from within.”
Bond is a disabled veteran who served in the U.S. Marines from 1983 to 1988, according to Evers’ press release. Bond joined the state Veterans Affairs agency in 2010 and worked as the administrator of the Divisions of Veterans Benefits and Veteran Services before being appointed to deputy secretary in 2019, when Evers took office.
Mikalsen said DVA did everything it could to keep the Legislature and, to a certain degree, top level administration officials, in the dark about how bad the care was at the veterans retirement homes.
Two veterans at the facility in King died after questionable care. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, 66 year-old Vietnam vet Ricky Engstrom died in February after suffering second- and third-degree burns over a third of his body. Engstrom was living with advanced multiple sclerosis and used an electric wheel chair. An investigation shows he was left alone outside when he caught himself on fire while smoking. He helplessly tried to douse the flames with snow.
Six months later, Army veteran Tom Link died at King while recovering from back surgery, according to the newspaper.
“He was a diabetic, but staff failed to check his blood sugar regularly and monitor his surgical wound, which developed a severe infection. Link was found unresponsive, in a coma. He died four days later, less than a month after coming to King,” the report states.
The state-run veterans home at Union Grove has been a house of horrors for hundreds of residents.
The facility late last year was slapped with six new violations in its annual federal inspection. That brought the total number of violations to 76 since 2017, the vast majority of the infractions on the Evers administration’s watch. Violations included a failure to thoroughly investigate an allegation of abuse or report it to state regulators. Investigators found staff didn’t do enough to prevent residents from falling and did not properly train nursing aides.
Veterans also have been given potentially unnecessary medications, including antipsychotics, according to federal records.
“Volunteers with Concerned Veterans for America traveled around the Wisconsin for months last year, talking with thousands of military families about the ongoing tragedies our senior veterans faced in some of these homes. They demanded action and accountability from Governor Evers,” said Sam Rogers, strategic director for Concerned Veterans of America in Wisconsin. “WDVA needs reforms to rebuild trust with veterans and military families, and it’s tough to see this appointment as a serious signal of an intent to improve.”
As she prepared to retire this week, Kolar thanked Evers for assembling a “phenomenal team.” The former Dane County Supervisor said during her tenure the Department of Veterans Affairs “has strengthened partnerships, grown outreach, improved benefits and services, and laid a better foundation for the future of Wisconsin veterans and their families.”
As conditions have deteriorated over the past couple of years, however, Kolar has blamed the problems on a severe staffing shortage. But the latest federal inspection finds the administration failed to apply for federal finding set aside for veterans homes to assist with staffing.
Documents obtained by the MacIver Institute detailed more incidents of mismanagement at the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs under Evers. Alarmingly, Union Grove and the other state-run veterans homes are bleeding money and could be insolvent within five years — in spite of millions of dollars in federal pandemic aid.
Fed up families are moving their loved ones out of Union Grove. According to MacIver, the census at the veterans homes at King and Union Grove are about half their capacity and well below the level required to sustain operations. Yet ,even with contract staff, forced overtime is still required.
Residents, their families and employees complain of overworked staff, in some cases so exhausted they have passed out at work or behind the wheel of their vehicles on the way to reporting for duty.
The maltreatment at Union Grove has proved deadly.
In one case, Navy veteran Randy Krall was so dehydrated when he was rushed to a hospital that doctors had a difficult time getting a urine sample to diagnose him, according to the Journal Sentinel. His medical chart showed he hadn’t had water for much of the day. When Krall’s condition deteriorated a few weeks later at the veterans nursing home, no one called to alert the family — contrary to facility policy. A Veterans Home nurse contacted Krall’s wife only after he died.
In one of two abuse-related violations, a nursing aide flipped over a resident to clean his genital area, according to the newspaper. The aide ignored instructions on how to carefully handle the patient or ask for help from a second aide.
“You would think people who have taken time, their resources and so much of themselves to serve would be treated better,” former Sen. Dale Kooyenga, who served on the Senate’s Veterans Committee last session, told Empower Wisconsin. Kooyenga has called for a state audit of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Nass wants to see an audit “at a minimum,” Mikalsen said. Someone should lose their job, he added.
“The people in charge at the time, they cannot be rewarded,” the legislative aide said of the “badly bungled job” by Kolar and her staff. “Unfortunately, this is what we’ve seen in many of Evers’ agencies: No accountability.”