Veterans outraged after receiving trespassing citations at VA

Published: Updated:

CAPE CORAL, Fla. – WINK News investigators continue to stand up for our veterans, uncovering another group of local veterans, who can’t believe how the VA is treating them.

Fort the past 18 months Dennis Simon and other veterans he calls his “brothers” have been meeting for peer-to-peer counseling at the Cape Coral VA once a week.

Like Simon, most of the veterans in his local group fought in Vietnam and all of them suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“You have survivor’s guilt and it really has a depressing result on me,” he explained. “Like the fellas will tell you, before the group I was going through periods of serious deep suicidal depression quite honestly.”

Luis Casilla is a volunteer trained to oversee the group. Also a veteran, he started out as a patient then transitioned to working at a VA office in Boston for more than a decade.

“We’re there, we’re there for each other,” explained Casilla of the group.

But the veterans group said last Friday everything changed. When they went to the VA clinic for their meeting, they were all escorted off the property and written citations for trespassing.

“Here we are senior citizens, we’re veterans, one of our members is 82-years-old and they said you must leave this area immediately it’s restrictive,” recalled Simon. “They issued us citations, calling it trespass. How do you trespass in a facility that was supposedly built for you?”

The men say they asked to speak with the medical director about why they weren’t able to meet anymore and were told she was not available. Simon says that’s when the VA police escorted them off the property and gave them all citations.

“We’ve all be assigned by psychologists to this group and we just want to know why this groups been canceled with no notice…. It was total humiliation, total disrespect,” said Simon.

WINK News Call for Action called and emailed the Bay Pines VA in St. Petersburg, who oversees the three local VA clinics.

According to a spokesman, they are implementing changes which were part of a 2008 law which calls for specific groups to be led by certified peer specialists.

They also sent us this statement:

In an effort to ease this transition, volunteer leaders of these groups began being notified about this change 2-3 months ago during face-to-face meetings with mental health leadership. Mental health professionals continue to work with these groups to ensure successful transitions and continuity of care.

One volunteer-led group at the Lee County Healthcare Center in Cape Coral refused the transition, clinical supervision and presence of a peer specialist during their sessions and have subsequently stopped meeting at the facility. The group leaders were first notified about the transition on October 3, 2014.  

Since that time, we have continued to try to work with the leaders to elicit their cooperation in the new group setting and have also offered assistance to relocate them to a community setting outside of the VA.

On December 5, this group of Veterans presented at the facility unscheduled and unannounced and indicated that they wished to hold a meeting. In the absence of orders, a staff member decided to allow them to meet in a conference room. Shortly after the meeting began, the Veterans left the conference room to conduct a protest about the dissolution of their group outside the administrative offices on the fourth floor. Due to this activity and conduct of the group, VA Police were dispatched to the area and the Veterans were escorted to the parking lot. Each Veteran was issued a courtesy notice and left the property without further incident.

Just like all of our peer support groups, it is our goal to continue providing this service to Veterans in accordance with policy and the evidence-based practice recognized by VHA.  It is important to note that mental health professionals at the Lee County Healthcare Center welcome the continuation of this group with appropriate presence of clinical staff.  We will continue working with Veterans that participate in these groups to ensure they understand how peer specialists and clinical supervision supports better health care outcomes and continuity of care. ”

The veterans we talked to claimed they were told about possible changes but never given a date when the meetings must stop and they feel the VA handled the whole situation poorly.

“We can’t believe the country that we served so honorably we treat us so dishonorably,” explained Simon.

When WINK News spoke with the VA spokesman by phone Wednesday afternoon, he did apologize for the way the situation was handled. However, he reiterated that because of the newly implemented law, mental health groups meeting on VA property must be overseen by a veteran who is licensed and employed by the VA.

He also tells us that they will reach out to the veterans group again to try to reach an agreement.

We also cleared up that the citation the veterans got was just a warning and that they are still allowed on property.

Copyright ©2023 Fort Myers Broadcasting. All rights reserved.

This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written consent.