OKLAHOMA CITY - Oklahoma talks a good game when it comes to honoring and valuing our veterans, but we're failing at actually taking care of them and providing quality health care. Last October, 73-year-old Vietnam veteran Owen Peterson died of sepsis at the Talihina Veterans Center after maggots were found in his body.

Four months later, 70-year-old Leonard Smith, another Vietnam vet, died by choking on a plastic bag in his throat - also at Talihina.

Dr. Treva Graham is medical director at the Clinton Veterans Center. 

"These things could happen anywhere," said Dr. Treva Graham, Medical Director of the Clinton VA Center.
 
Clinton and Talihina are two of the state's seven veterans centers. The others are in Norman, Ardmore, Claremore, Sulphur, and Lawton.  Together, these facilities provide intermediate to skilled nursing to about 1,400 veterans, many of them battling very serious illness.

"These people are very often plagued with Alzheimer's, and they don't always remember that they can't walk or that they know what to do with things that come into their hands," Dr. Graham said. "They might try to eat something that's not really appropriate for them to eat."

Graham says, despite a few incidents that get bad press, the care at the state's veterans centers is overwhelmingly good. She says the centers have full-time RNs, pharmacists, physical therapists, social workers, as well as service officers to help the veterans with their benefits.

"We feel like we need to treat them just like we would if they were our family," she said. "We want them to be as well cared for as if they were our own father, our own brother, our own uncle."

Of course, far more veterans get their care through the federal VA system: 61,000 walked through the doors of the Oklahoma City VA Hospital last year.

Russell Wolfe is one of them.

"I've used VA cares all over," he said. 

Wolfe just recently finished his degree at UCO in Edmond, but it's been 21 years since he was paralyzed in the line of duty. He's gotten VA care all over the country and says he's seen the good, the bad and the ugly.

"Every facility's different," Wolfe said. "I try to keep an open mind about that specifically."

He says his experiences in Oklahoma have been positive - with the exception of a recent attempt to get VA approval to adapt his car for his wheelchair.

"Well, they disapproved my adaptation to my vehicle, and I'm like, 'I've got the paperwork right here,' and they're like, 'well, you're not approved,' and I'm like, 'I have the paperwork.' They're like, 'well, it's not in our system,'" he said.

Wade Vlosich is the director of the Oklahoma City VA Health Care System.

"I think we have improved; we're not where we need to be," he said.

Vlosich took the reins of the Oklahoma City VA Health Care System just over a year ago. He says there were a variety of problems - a lack of good nurses, doctors underperforming, poor communications.  

"There was just no leadership," Vlosich said. "And when you had leadership here, there was just no continuity and no focus."

Vlosich set out quickly to change that through personnel moves, aggressive recruiting, and increased outreach to veterans. Vlosich has also expanded mental health services for veterans through telemedicine, increased outpatient services by pushing for greater productivity, and cracked down on fraud.

He says on the VA's five-star rating scale, they've jumped from a one to a three.

"Our goal is to be a five-star facility and be the leader in the nation, and I think we can get there," said Wade Vlosich, director of the Oklahoma City VA Health Care System.

Of course, OKC isn't the only VA facility in Oklahoma. There are more than a dozen outpatient clinics spread across the state and another center like the one in Muskogee. A recent inspector general investigation into the Muskogee VA, requested by Senator Jim Inhofe, found deficiencies in leadership stability, staffing, and timeliness, among other things. Like Oklahoma City, Muskogee currently has a rating of three stars.