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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Veterans, McMorris Rodgers battle VA over access to exercise room

“We’re doing this for the next generation,” said Ed Stack as he stood outside the protest tent in front of the Spokane Veterans Administration Medical Center on Tuesday. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

For eight months the aging veterans have sat in camp chairs inside a makeshift tent at the entrance to the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center as part of a low-intensity protest.

Their complaint: They just want access to exercise equipment they have used for years until they were kicked out last August.

Parked almost daily at the VA, the group places a skeleton in a chair. Nearby the sign reads: “Welcome to the VA where the ADMINISTRATION here will give you a second chance to DIE for your country.”

The main agitators of the effort, which has attracted 13,000 petition signatures, are the “Charlies.” They are 68-year-old Charlie Monroe, of Spokane, and 63-year-old Charlie Bourg, of Chewelah.

What appears to be a dispute with a simple solution has turned into a donnybrook between veterans, who have the full backing of U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and a VA hospital administration that has argued that the veterans’ daily presence was getting in the way of other patients who needed access to the exercise machines.

“We’ve been working on this for months,” McMorris Rodgers said Thursday in a telephone interview. “I do believe the veterans have legitimate concerns. I think the VA has made it very complicated.”

Administration at Mann-Grandstaff did not respond to multiple requests this week for interviews.

For years prior, the group of veterans have gathered in the morning and used the equipment to work on sore joints, bad backs and replaced knees.

“It covers both mental and physical health,” Monroe said. “It was one of the best programs they had going. Everybody had a medical reason to be in there. For me, I’ll have to be doing this for the rest of my life.”

Then last Aug. 20, the administration abruptly barred the veterans from their morning routine. As a solution, they offered different hours or to help the veterans find reduced-price memberships at Gold’s Gym and the YMCA.

But the veterans argue that they were cognizant of other patients in a facility that sits empty most of the day. As an example, Monroe walked a reporter to the window of the room one day last week. The room was empty of patients but full of exercise equipment.

“See what I mean?” Monroe said. A few moments later, a VA Police SUV slowly rolled by. “They do that all the time.”

As for the gym solution, the Charlies say they don’t want to pay out of their own pockets and deal with transportation headaches when the VA facility provides everything they need.

“They asked us to go to one of the gyms. But we are not there to create buns of steel,” Monroe said. The gyms “don’t have what we need. The gyms do not have qualified physical therapists.”

After the Charlies got the ear of McMorris Rodgers, she wrote then-Administrator Ron Johnson, who is on temporary assignment to Seattle, to settle the dispute.

“The veterans in the program, who were using the physical therapy equipment without direct supervision from a therapist, were able to maintain a healthy lifestyle, meet their physical therapy and mobility goals, and improve their overall health as a result of regular exercise,” McMorris Rodgers wrote in a Sept. 16 letter. “We need to find a solution to this issue and solve this problem as soon as possible.”

In the interview on Thursday, McMorris Rodgers said she understands one of the main sticking points with VA administration is privacy concerns between those veterans already getting physical therapy and other veterans who are brought into the facility to start care.

“This has been a priority issue,” she said. “And the discussions have continued. In my mind, this shouldn’t be as difficult as it has been.”

Instead, the veterans say they have been visited by VA police, all of whom they know, and have uncovered a myriad of other problems that other veterans complained about because of the group’s proximity to the medical center.

“Basically what it came down to is they didn’t want us in there,” said Bourg, an Army veteran.

He conceded that most of the veterans using the equipment have hearing difficulties. They sometimes take out hearing aids during the workouts, which causes them to talk louder to communicate.

“It was preventative medicine,” Monroe said. “It was saving them in the long run. It will cost them a fortune because we are falling apart.”

Monroe, who spent 7 1/2 years in the U.S. Navy Seabees, said the veterans are pleased with the therapists.

“We love the staff. They are overworked and underpaid,” Monroe said. “The administration is what is screwing this place up.”