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VFW head wants independent probe of VA problems

VFW Commander in Chief William “Bill” A. Thien on Friday called for accountability and transparency in the Veterans Affairs medical care problems. His comments, including a call for an independent investigation, came during a visit to Brainerd VFW Post 1647.

“We want the truth,” he said, noting he didn’t care where that search for truth led.

Thien said that if it was determined that any misdeeds in the VA system resulted in the death of a veteran the VFW would ask for criminal charges.

The Inspector General’s interim report, Thien said, was “damning enough,” even though the complete report was not finished.

Speaking just hours before VA Secretary Eric Shineski resigned, Thien said the VFW had not called for Shinseki to be fired, noting the VFW was waiting for more information.

Thien said VFW leaders have complained about veterans’ waiting lists at VA facilities since 2005. He said Congress shares responsibility for the current problems and the situation is more than just the possible misdeeds of one person.

He told members of the Brainerd post that taking care of veterans and their families is the VFW’s No. 1 priority. He said VFW veterans service officers brought in $3.7 billion in benefits to veterans and their families in a year’s time.

VFW membership, which Thien said was 1.9 million, is important because it translates into influence with politicians.

“What they (politicians) do really well is count votes,” Thien said. “When we stick together we have that strength.”

The government sequestration, which led to 20 percent cuts across the board, hurt veterans and their families, Thien said.

“I’m going to blame them all,” he said of federal and elected officials.

The United States has been at war for 13 years and he visits VFW posts where care packages are still assembled to send to military personnel overseas.

“It’s sad but most of America has forgotten we’re still at war,” Thien said. “We haven’t forgotten.”

The VFW commander in chief described the group’s unmet needs program in which a military person’s family might be helped out if the car or refrigerator broke.

Responding to questions from the audience about membership recruitment challenges, Thien said he didn’t think a merger with the American Legion or other veterans groups was going to happen. Numbers in the VFW have been larger, he noted, but that’s partly because 16 million people fought in World War II. Many of the veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now busy raising their young families.

“The organization is OK,” he said. “The current conflict veterans will come.”

Thien, who attended Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, arrived in Minnesota on Monday. Since then his schedule listed appointments at VFW posts at South St. Paul, Owatonna, Mankato, Hutchinson, Osakis, Alexandria, Fergus Falls, Dilworth, Thief River Falls, Bemidji, Deer River, Grand Rapids, Duluth, Garrison and Brainerd. He was scheduled to continue visitations on Friday at Camp Ripley and VFW posts at St. Cloud and Spring Lake Park.

He was welcomed to the Brainerd VFW Post by Outgoing VFW Commander Shawn Thayer, Incoming Commander Dave Meyer, Baxter Mayor Darrel Olson and Brainerd Mayor James Wallin.

Thien was elected commander in chief in 2013. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1969-74 and served five years in the Indiana National Guard. His decorations include the Vietnam Service Medal with three stars, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (Korea), National Defense Service Medal and several decorations from the National Guard.

In opening remarks, the Georgetown, Ind., resident talked about his string of 110 post visits. When an audience member asked if he was married, he brought up a different consequence of his frequent travel.

“I’m more concerned about my dog biting me when I get home,” he said.

MIKE O’ROURKE may be reached at 855-5860 or Follow on Twitter at

Mike O'Rourke
Mike O'Rourke began his career at the Brainerd Dispatch in 1978 as a general assignment reporter. He was named city editor in 1981 and associate editor in 1999. He covers politics and writes features and editorials.
(218) 855-5860