Veterans say Miami VA harassed them over service animals
More veterans come forward after Local 10 investigation uncovers allegations of disservice
MIAMI – After a Local 10 investigation first uncovered allegations of disservice at the Miami Veterans Hospital, more veterans have come forward with complaints.
New documents obtained by Local 10 also seem to show an increase in the number of animal-related incidents this year compared to last.
"I drove over an IED," said Afghanistan veteran Dane Silva. "And boom, just like that."
Silva said he had multiple injuries to his ribs and now also suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.
"I have problems in my neck, severe migraines," said veteran Alecia Golden.
Golden said she left the service with those injuries after working on weapons, like torpedoes and missiles, in the first Gulf War.
"I would have an anxiety attack, get all nervous and everything," veteran Geneva Adams said.
Adams said she left more than a dozen years of service with anxiety and depression.
All three veterans are now the latest to come forward alleging the Miami VA harassed them over their service animals.
The first spoke out just a few weeks ago. Marine Osvaldo Martinez said the VA hassled him over his PTSD dog, detained him and ticketed him for disorderly conduct.
"I was treated like crap," he said. "You stop and detain me because of my service dog?"
"You're not allowed to have a service dog?" Investigative Reporter Ross Palombo asked.
"He told me I'm not allowed to have a service dog in that hospital," said Martinez.
A spokesperson for the VA said the issue wasn't Martinez's service dog -- it was that he was abusing it. Martinez denies that and questions why he was only then given a ticket for disorderly conduct and not animal abuse.
In the wake of his story, three others have come forward alleging similar treatment.
"He's trying to say that this is not a service dog," Golden recalled when speaking of her incident.
She said she was improperly questioned about her dog, even though she claims he is properly trained and certified.
"That's horrible to be treated that way," said Golden.
"They came and started picking on me and said, 'Why are you here with this dog?'" Adams said.
Adams also said she was improperly questioned about her dog, even though she too claims that he is properly trained and certified.
"I feel like I'm in war now," said Adams.
Silva said his personal war escalated to a physical confrontation back in December.
"They took officers and slammed me against the wall," he said.
Silva admits he first broke the rules by not having his dog on a leash. When he put his belt around his service dog's collar, though, he said it still wasn't enough for officers.
"He said that PTSD service dogs are not real service dogs," said Silva.
Silva was issued two federal tickets and was eventually found guilty of disorderly conduct and failure to leave.
"They lied," he said.
Now, Silva and others say they want the truth.
"I couldn't allow this to happen to other people," said Silva.
Last year, the VA's own internal document show there were four incidents or "investigations" involving animals. This year, that number is already up three-fold to 12. In one case, a woman was "escorted off property" for "failure to provide proper documentation." In another, police also said a second woman "could not provide proof."
"The VA needs more training," the Center for Independent Living's Marc Dubin said.
Dubin believes that proof should not be required.
"Under the (Americans with Disabilities Act), it is illegal. So, it's surprising and disappointing that the VA imposes this restriction," said Dubin.
In their reports, though, officers claim that there were at least five cases where a veteran stated their animal was "not a service dog," or was a "therapy dog," or was "in training," or simply did "nothing." In two cases, officers claim dogs acted up by "biting" or "jumping."
"It makes no sense, if they're their to help us, I don't see why they would be causing veterans more undo stress," Silva said.
Despite weeks of requests, the head of the Miami VA, Paul Russo, would not comment on camera.
Russo released a statement saying:
"Ensuring that veterans get the care they need is our top priority. Since these events came to our attention, we have made revisions to our local policy and will be training our staff and educating veterans in the coming weeks. As a hospital system that serves nearly 60,000 veterans each year, we have an obligation to ensure that all veterans feel welcome and are treated in a clean, safe medical environment. Although the vast majority of individuals who have service animals are responsible owners, we do occasionally have people who bring animals into our facilities that are off-leash, not groomed or exhibiting aggressive behavior. In these cases, we have a responsibility to keep our staff and patients safe and ensure hospital infection control measures are maintained.
"I apologize to any of the veterans who feel that they have not been treated with respect during a visit to any of our South Florida facilities. We take seriously all customer service issues raised by veterans and their families while they receive care at the Miami VA Healthcare System and I believe strongly that our staff is committed to serving America's veterans with dignity and respect."
"I think it's disgraceful," Silva said. "That's the one place you have to turn when you get out and they push you away."
The VA maintains Adam's and Golden's are not service dogs and that both animals have growled and snapped at other patients. Both women deny those allegations. The VA also said Silva's issue was not his dog, but how he allegedly overreacted.
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