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ACLU's lawsuit against the VA is a step in vet's recovery

Greg Valentini hopes the case will help other veterans who ended up traumatized and homeless

June 10, 2011
  • Greg Valentini served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He takes responsibility for his drug use but thinks the VA could do more to help traumatized vets.
Greg Valentini served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He takes responsibility… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Combat veteran Greg Valentini slept in Wednesday morning in Hollywood, the day he sued the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Actually, Valentini didn't file the suit himself, and he was only one of four plaintiffs in what could become a class-action case. The ACLU of Southern California argues in the suit that the VA has mismanaged and underutilized its sprawling West Los Angeles campus even as mentally impaired homeless vets sleep on the city's streets.

If there's money to wage two wars, there ought to be money to restore abandoned medical buildings at the VA and fill them with some of the estimated 8,200 homeless veterans in Greater Los Angeles, as well as provide them the rehab services they need. That's how the ACLU's Mark Rosenbaum described the thinking behind the lawsuit to me this week.

As the suit notes, the VA campus has enough space for private companies to store buses and rental cars and for a hotel laundry facility, but no permanent housing for veterans, even though the property was deeded to the government more than 100 years ago specifically to house veterans.

As for Valentini, his involvement in the lawsuit came as a surprise to me, even though I've been shadowing him for several months in a series of columns about his efforts to rehabilitate himself. He told me he was sworn to secrecy until the suit was filed.

On Wednesday morning I visited him at the Hollywood rehab center where he has lived since last August along with a few dozen other veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Valentini, 33, hadn't seen the lawsuit, so I delivered a copy.

Valentini, who grew up in Lakewood, wasn't entirely comfortable being named in the suit. He doesn't enjoy reviewing the harrowing details of his combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and his later descent into suicidal fantasies, homelessness and drug addiction. But he was willing if it would help others.

Here's what the suit says about his service in Afghanistan: "He took part in significant ground fighting, under nearly constant sniper fire and mortar bombardment" and "witnessed the gruesome deaths of numerous civilians, including children."

And in Iraq: "The unit's assignment was to clear, secure and hold certain key areas near Karbala while other forces moved toward Baghdad. He again experienced heavy combat, involving the deaths of soldiers and civilians."

Valentini rarely discusses those experiences.

"I've had this ping-pong battle in my head for a long time," he said, meaning that although he attributes his predicament to the damage he suffered in two wars, he doesn't want to be someone who never leaves the war behind.

Greg enlisted in the Army in 2000 because he wanted to honor his father and grandfather, both of them veterans, and then use the G.I. Bill to make something of himself. Instead, he ended up in post-combat hell, living in a tent by the Long Beach Airport, bathing in a lake and eating out of garbage cans.

"I don't want to be a whiny vet," he said. Tons of vets, he argued, came home with similar problems and fought through them with "diligence and hard work."

"A lot of what I've done," he said, referring particularly to his drug abuse after returning, "is a straight-up cop-out."

His involvement in the lawsuit is another illustration of that ping-pong battle in his head. It began when his request for an increase in disability compensation — from 50% disabled with severe post-traumatic stress disorder to 70% disabled — was denied in February after a visit with a psychiatrist.

"You were not hostile or fearful," says the VA's explanation for denial. "You did not have any bizarre posturing, gait, or mannerisms....You denied any suicidal or homicidal ideation or intent."

To Valentini, it was like being penalized for doing his best to cope, and he said the exam lasted only 15 minutes. The Volunteers of America, which runs the rehab center where he lives, believed he might be entitled to the extra benefits and referred him to the Inner City Law Center, which had teamed up with the ACLU in the drafting of the lawsuit.

Valentini supports the argument that the VA ought to make better use of its nearly 400 acres in West L.A., and that the chances of rehabilitation are greater for vets who live in supportive housing with all the needed services in one place.

But he also blames the bulk of his problems on himself, rather than the VA. After his discharge in 2003, he said he got good care at the VA in Long Beach and was steered into a good housing program run by U.S. Vets, a nonprofit.

Later, he briefly lived in temporary housing at the West L.A. campus, but that was disastrous, in part because of the easy access to drugs.

One of his roommates there died of a heroin overdose.

Back to the streets went Valentini, and back to drugs, until he landed in jail for burglary. It was a VA rep who helped steer him into the program he's in now, Valentini said, and he has decided he wants to become a social worker and help other vets.

Now here's an ironic twist:

Though Valentini was named in Wednesday's lawsuit over the lack of housing for vets, he learned on Tuesday that he got a long-awaited housing voucher from the VA that will allow him to move into his own apartment in August.

Valentini hopes the lawsuit will do some good for other vets, and he hopes the voucher will get him one step closer to his goal.

He wants to be strong enough to reject his own rationalizations, to win that ping-pong battle in his head and not only leave the war behind, but show others the way.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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