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Vet’s Death Underscores Tragedy of VA Failings

Barry Coates, the U.S. veteran who in 2014 became the human face of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) scandal over delays in care, died on Saturday of the cancer that could have been treated had the VA given him the care he requested. He was only 46.

After CNN featured him prominently in a CNN investigation, Mr. Coates became the “face” of the scandals regarding delays and wait time manipulations at VA medical centers. These scandals resulted in the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and a law that provided $16 billion to overhaul the VA.

After spending nearly a year complaining to his doctors of pain, Mr. Coates was able to get a colonoscopy at a VA medical center. Doctors discovered a cancerous tumor the size of a baseball. By then he had Stage 4 cancer, and it was too late to save his life.

From his first interview, Mr. Coates, an articulate man from rural South Carolina, spoke eloquently about how veterans should be treated better, and deserved more after all the sacrifices they had made for their country.

“Due to the inadequate and lack of follow-up care I received through the VA system, I stand before you terminally ill today,” Mr. Coates told members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in April of 2014.

The lawmakers who heard him testify were shaken by his description, and about the numerous deaths of other veterans outlined in CNN’s investigation.

“This is an outrage! This is an American disaster!” Rep. Jackie Walorski, an Indiana Republican, nearly screamed, her voice quavering, during that congressional hearing. “My dad was a veteran. He died of colon cancer,” she said, crying softly. “This is so personal to me.”

Mr. Coates remained friendly and kind, was never hostile, and even kept his humor as his illness progressed. Speaking with his down-home and polite country manner, the Army veteran had a remarkable ability to touch many people with his story.

Mr. Coates’s family said he died Saturday from the cancer that had been left untreated by the VA for so long. After his time in the national spotlight, Mr. Coates continued to rail against the VA and fight for veterans to get better treatment, continuing to speak with reporters and helping them understand the VA crisis and scandal as it unfolded.

Mr. Coates’s story is tragic not only because it shows how the VA is failing – indeed, refusing – to serve, the very veterans it is established to protect; but because so many other veterans share a similar story. They deserve better, but how many stories like this will have to be splashed across the CNN’s webpages to effect actual change?

Or will there never be enough, because the VA is not capable of the systematic overhaul needed to adequately serve our nation’s veterans?

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8 Responses to “Vet’s Death Underscores Tragedy of VA Failings”

  1. There will never be change because the government will protect its own, and find a way to let things remain hidden. Even when the GAO or IG recommend disciplinary action the VA ignore it and let the bad employee stay employed.

  2. I wish I believed it was possible, but they will always protect their own. Maybe letting the VA have higher than normal set asides for veteran hires?

  3. Sarah, I am deeply saddened to read about the passing of Mr. Coates. I agree, the VA needs a complete overhaul by addressing the root causes of the continuing failures of the VA even when millions of dollars continue to be poored into the system to prop it up.

    “This is an outrage! This is an American disaster.”


  4. My name is Hope and I am also a Veteran who since July 4th, 2015 was diagnosed with ovarian cancer stage 2. I have fought for months to be seen and start treatment. I finally got seen in Dec 2015 and have since been told I was misdiagnosed and now just have ovarian cyst. I feel as a veteran we are being ignored and it is appears as if the VA could careless what happens to us. I am deeply saddened by this article as it brought tears to my eyes. I have also been fighting my appeal with the VA since March 2013. I was told about 2 years and it will be 3 years, in 2 months. Every time I call for an update I receive the same answer that it is being reviewed. As a Veteran that has been raped by my fellow soldiers I feel I have been mistreated and disrespected after I signed a blank check to Uncle Sam in 1983 upon my joining the Army. I have no words for the treatment my fellow veterans or myself have received.

  5. This sounds so tragically familiar. As a Veteran and patient I am wearing out my patience waiting on the VA to act and live up to its creed. It is such a simple oath. Unfortunately, what I’ve witnessed as a veteran and VA employee does not come close to it living up to that creed. The VA apparently is too big for its own good, there are too many layers of mid and upper level management that it “cannot get out of its own way”.
    There is a self-avowed culture known as “The VA way”. I thought it would end with Secretary McDonald (sp). Mr. Secretary, will it?

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