When Nathan McClure went to work on the morning of April 17, 2014, he never thought he’d leave as an accused domestic terrorist.
McClure, 32 years old and more than six feet tall, walked through the entrance of the Robert J. Dole Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Wichita, Kansas just after 7:00 and went through the locked door to the office space he shared with several co-workers. Sandra Pope, his boss, stood next to his desk. So did a local police chief and a deputy.
McClure worked for the Robert J. Dole Veterans Affairs Medical Center for eight months. He’d been assigned to a project that gave him access to a lot of different areas of the hospital and put him in contact with important people.
McClure alleges that while working at the Dole V.A., he discovered proof of waste, fraud and negligence on the part of the veterans’ agency. He said that when he started asking questions and filing reports, people told him to shut up. When he refused, the V.A. labeled him a threat and showed him the door.
Pope fired McClure, effective immediately, and read his termination letter aloud. It accused him of waving his arms during meetings and throwing pens when he disagreed with his peers.
“It was reported that you made a statement that you will ‘blow up’ a staff member’s car,” the letter reads. “You have made a statement that you have ‘fortified your home with bullet-proof glass and clear shooting lanes’ and that you have stockpiled weapons at your home.”
Some of McClure’s peers had accused him of making terrorist-style threats. That, officials said, was why they were firing him. “I was calm, I was cool, I was collected,” McClure recalls. “This Apocalypse Now-type soldier that they’re trying to create would not behave in that manner.” In the classic 1979 war film McClure references, several characters — all U.S. troops serving in the Vietnam War — go crazy … and go rogue.
McClure says he cleaned out his desk that April morning, turned over his work I.D. and followed as the police led him to his car. “They let me walk out with my backpack full of documents,” he says. “They let me leave with all my information in my backpack.”
According to McClure, he had uncovered evidence of unsanitary surgical equipment, unmonitored equipment, inappropriate behavior by surgeons in the operating room, a secret wait list for veterans needing surgery or access to specialists and sloppy accounting.
McClure says that after he went to his supervisors with his findings, they retaliated — by firing him and labeling him a threat.
There’s certainly precedent for the abuses McClure alleges. In 2014, investigators uncovered a secret wait list at Phoenix-area V.A.s. The understaffed and poorly managed hospitals kept track of patients on secret wait lists in order to avoid putting patients into their electronic system. Vets aren’t supposed to wait more than 30 days for surgery, but a wait only counts if it’s in the system.
Hundreds of thousands of veterans waited more than 30 days to see doctors. Many may have died. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki stepped down a month after the story broke.
McClure says the Dole V.A. in Kansas is still putting veterans on secret wait lists.
McClure’s case wouldn’t be the first time V.A. supervisors have fired an employee for blowing the whistle. It also wouldn’t be the first time the Dole V.A. has allegedly accused a rebellious employee of making terrorist threats.
Terry Gray worked as a biomedical engineer at the Dole V.A. for 20 years. Gray, like McClure, says he uncovered negligent practices at the V.A. and tried to address them through official channels. He says his supervisor told him to forget about it, but Gray persisted.
No one would listen, Gray says, and in a fit of depression in 2004 he made an offhand comment about a gun. A fellow employee reported him. Gray says his boss gave him a choice — retire or we’ll fire you and say you made a threat.
“The V.A. has this culture of fear and retaliation,” explains Lydia Dennett, from the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, D.C. “People are very scared to speak up. Across the board, when they did raise any concerns … they would receive terrible retaliation. Many lost their jobs and livelihood.”
McClure lost his job, but he still has to go back to the Dole V.A.. He was more than just an employee — he’s also a V.A. patient.
”9/11 happened my senior year of high school,” McClure says. “I wanted to enlist.” He says his parents made him try college first, but it didn’t take and he so he finally joined the Army.
After finishing Sniper school, he deployed to Iraq in early 2007. In September of that year, an Improvised Explosive Device rigged to produce so-called “explosively-formed projectiles” ripped through his Humvee. “I took a round to the right thigh, abdomen, right lower back and across my chest, ripping a hole through my vest,” he explains.
The Army flew him back home to Kansas where he went through numerous surgeries. His military career was over. Today he can walk, but he doesn’t sit easily. He says he’s in constant pain.
To help deal with the pain, McClure pays regular visits to the Dole V.A. for epidural injections. That process has gotten a lot more complicated. After his bosses fired McClure for allegedly making threats, they flagged his patient folder. According to his hospital records, McClure is a danger to himself and to others. He has to check in with V.A. police — yes, the agency has its own police force — for an escort whenever he’s on hospital grounds.
A criminal background check on McClure returned no arrest record in the Kansas Criminal Repository. The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Department says the V.A. center in the county is out of its jurisdiction.
The V.A. police deputy chief who helped escort McClure off the premises refused to talk about the incident. Pope, McClure’s boss, never returned phone calls seeking comment. Contacted by phone, one of McClure’s co-workers said they wouldn’t comment.
Johnathon Orrell, Dole V.A.’s public affairs officer, confirms that McClure was an employee of the Dole V.A., but declines to comment on his termination.
“Our sterilization water supply is routinely tested and monitored by engineering personnel,” Orrell says in regards to McClure’s allegations. “Safety checklists are meticulously followed to identify any issues with quality control. Any issues are immediately rectified prior to introducing instruments into the operating theater.”
Does the Dole V.A. maintain a secret wait list? “No,” Orrell says simply, declining to elaborate.
Admittedly, the public affairs officer could be busy dealing with another scandal. Administrators at the Dole V.A. placed one of the hospital’s surgeons on leave in early December pending an investigation into allegations of harassment and inappropriate conduct.
McClure says he knows how the surgeon is and exactly what he’s done. He also alleges that Dole V.A. administrators have known about that misconduct for a long time.
Popular Military’s investigation into the Dole VA is ongoing, with much more to follow.
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