Veteran J.J. Asevedo, left, sits at a news conference announcing a lawsuit at the Los Angeles VA, June 8, 2011. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)
Greg Valentini is a homeless vet in Los Angeles who took part in the initial invasion of Afghanistan and participated in the assault on Tora Bora that sought Osama bin Laden. He’s also a plaintiff in the class action suit brought by the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU-SC) arguing that the VA has “misused large portions of its West Los Angeles campus and failed to provide adequate housing and treatment for the people it was intended to serve.” (See my Nation article “LA’s Homeless Vets.”) Valentini was a private in the 101st Airborne, and the lawsuit describes 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.” He was redeployed to Iraq, where he again experienced heavy combat. He received six decorations for his service.
Steve Lopez, the legendary Los Angeles Times columnist, has been following Valentini. When he came back from Afghanistan, Lopez wrote, Valentini “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.” 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.” He also told Lopez “I don’t want to be a whiny vet.” He “blames the bulk of his problems on himself, rather than the VA.” But he does think it would help other homeless vets who have severe emotional problems if they could live in the VA dorms on its Brentwood campus in West LA.
The problem is that the land, donated 125 years ago for housing disabled veterans, today houses nobody. That’s why the ACLU-SC is suing the VA. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of the ACLU-SC Foundation.) Veterans of the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, WWI and WWII lived there for decades. But since the 1970s, the dormitories have been empty, and the VA has rented parts of the site to a Rent-a-Car company and a hotel laundry, along with a neighboring private school and UCLA, which use the land for athletic fields. Meanwhile homeless veterans sleep on the street outside the locked gates.
Every Sunday afternoon for the last five years a group of veterans have demonstrated in Los Angeles outside those locked gates, waving at the cars going past on Wilshire Boulevard on their way to the beach, carrying signs that read “Bring our homeless veterans ‘Home,’” and “In the deed we trust.” The deed in question is dated 1888. The VA acknowledges that the deed required that the land be used for housing disabled vets, and that the land was used for that purpose until the 1970s. But, the VA told the court, the deed is not enforceable without specific legislation by Congress. The VA said—and the court agreed—that no veteran, and no descendant of the family that donated the land (also represented by the ACLU) can enforce that deed. That’s the law, Judge Otero said, although it “may seem shocking.”