Ron Johnson made multiple stops in Northern Wisconsin last week. See the stories below about some of his visits.
By: Mary O’Connell
“So many people here, especially in the Northwoods, are concerned about how do you create jobs,” said Johnson. “I think it’s a big deal that the state has entered into agreement with the National Forest Service, and so we’ll be able to manage another 20 million board feet of lumber. That’s going to provide the raw material for a lot of industry here, create jobs.”
“Every Friday morning we raise the flag at the Bong Center,” American Legion Richard I. Bong Post 435 commander Del Kanjas said.
The raising of the flags showed veterans and their families gratitude for defending our nation.
“We get emotional sometimes depending on whose being honored,” said Kanjas. “So yea it’s a very important thing in our lives.”
After the ceremony the crowd moved into the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center for a veterans town hall held by U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin).
“We need to honor the promises we made to the finest among us, there’s no doubt about it,” said Johnson.
Veterans told FOX 21 key concerns are in the areas of housing, mental illness, medical benefits and education.
“For a lot of vets that just can’t seem to get it together,” said Kanjas. “It’s good for the federal government to understand what those needs are and to work on them. I think the VA’s getting better but still there’s a ways to go.”
The listening session took the form of a Q and A.
“Very helpful so that our delegation can hear from our veterans about the issues of concern to them,” Douglas County administrator Andy Lisak said.
The session explored anything from foreign policies to conceal and carry laws.
“If it’s one word I would describe it it’s security,” said Johnson. “In such uncertain times people are feeling a sense of just insecurity, they’re not feeling safe.”
The U.S. Senator will also travel east of Superior to promote industry, job creation and tourism.
“I’ll be talking about the great resorts, great fishing,” said Johnson.
During the town hall Douglas County was recognized as an employer that supports employees in the National Guard and reserves.
The agreement essentially expands the Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) inside the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
“It’s certainly a good start,” Johnson said. “What we want to see is we want to make sure what’s the allowable harvest out of the national forest is actually harvested so that you have the lumber supply to all of the industries here in upper Wisconsin. I think it’s just a really good first step.”
Johnson said he has educated himself about the process over the last few years and has seen how effectively the state, counties and tribes manage their lands.
“It’s about time for the national forests to manage their lands as well,” he said.
“Where the forests are managed, they’re healthy. Where they’re not, they’re dying. That’s not good for any reason. I’m just glad to see this agreement has been entered into for the region. It’ll be good for job creation.”
The agreement was the result of work on the part of both parties and Johnson was asked if it might be an example of things to come from them.
“Let’s hope so,” he said.
Problems at the Veterans Administration hospital in Tomah first made news in 2014 and the investigation into practices there is ongoing, Johnson said. A report released late last week by the VA’s inspector general’s office found a 35-year-old Marine died last year from “mixed drug toxicity.”
Jason Simcakoski was in the Marines from 1998 to 2002 and sustained a head injury during that time. According to an Associated Press story, the report released Thursday by the inspector general’s office found the two psychiatrists who prescribed medication to Simcakoski didn’t discuss the risks of the drugs with him or his family.
Johnson told The Lakeland Times Saturday he first heard of the problems at Tomah in January of this year. That’s when a “whistleblower” brought to light many problems that prompted the IG’s report.
Johnson has requested documents from the VA related to Tomah but said officials have not fully complied with the request.
“We’re trying to set up a process where we get all the information,” he said. “The former acting inspector general, Richard Griffin, did not comply. I think under the pressure of our investigation, he decided to retire. That’s been part of the problem with the VA system. You had an inspector general that I think … had not been transparent, not been independent.”
Johnson said there have been numerous reports and inspections that have not been made public. As a result, he said he knows of at least one other veteran who died as a result (of errors at Tomah). He said the daughter of the man who died told him that had she known what was going on at Tomah she never would have allowed her father to be treated there “and he probably would be alive today.”
He also said he has been in touch with the Simcakoski family.
“I talked to Barb Simcakoski [Jason’s mother] yesterday,” he said. “They’re thinking through the process now that they’ve got the initial report. The VA, at least they admitted that (the Simcakoski’s son) Jason died because of mismanagement of certainly the opiate prescriptions.”
Johnson said the question now is whether anyone will be held accountable for Simcakoski’s death.
“We’re going to press on that,” Johnson said. “There’s a piece of legislation I’ve offered … to give the VA even greater firing authority of not only just the top level executives but potentially, the actual care providers.”
Johnson said he wanted to emphasize that it is his understanding in talking to veterans that they’re very satisfied, in general, with the care they receive from the VA.
“The wait times are too long, the traveling is too long,” he said. “But the vast majority of nurses, doctors and administrators working in the [VA] health care system are doing a really good job. We always need to keep that in mind.”
In any organization, and particularly in a bureaucracy, Johnson said “you have to be able to terminate individuals that aren’t doing a good job and aren’t providing the services veterans deserve.”
“There’s nothing more corrosive to an organization than allowing people who aren’t performing properly … to continue to just skate along and not be able to terminate them.” Johnson said. “It’s important the VA has that capability.”
Johnson’s chief of staff, retired Army lieutenant colonel Tony Blando, said Johnson has seven veterans on his staff.