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Jim Kenyon: ‘Grillgate’ at Lebanon VA Office

When the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs moved its benefits department into the office building at 112 Etna Road in Lebanon a couple of years ago, it brought along plenty of signs to warn visitors that “no guns, knives or other weapons (are) allowed” on the property.

Apparently, the VA fears barbecue grills, too.

Let me explain. Or try to.

For more than a half-dozen years, the Marker-Volkl USA ski company’s headquarters have been in the same building where the VA began leasing space in 2012. With President Mike Noonan flipping burgers on the company’s gas grill, Marker-Volkl’s 20 employees made a habit of getting together occasionally during warmer months for lunchtime cookouts on the office building’s back lawn. When not in use, the grill stayed outside and no one at Marker-Volkl gave it much thought until the next cookout season rolled around.

Until last year, when the grill went missing.

The building has only a few tenants, and word trickled back to Marker-Volkl that the VA might be responsible for the missing grill. But Noonan decided against pursuing the matter. He figured the VA benefits office, which has 26 employees, would be a short-term neighbor while the VA Medical Center in White River Junction underwent renovations.

“I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it,” Noonan told me. “It’s a grill.”

On the surface, it does sound a bit silly: Why would the federal government confiscate a fellow tenant’s barbecue grill? And not tell anyone about it?

There’s a part of this story, however, that’s more disturbing than funny. The missing grill provides a window — or more aptly, a door — into the way the behemoth VA bureaucracy sometimes operates.

The VA has been in the national news a lot lately. Last week, the federal government disclosed that 42 VA facilities across the country were being investigated for “manipulation” of waiting lists. The VA Medical Center in White River Junction is not among the facilities under investigation and has a reputation for providing stellar care.

But everything Noonan saw and read in the national news got him to thinking about how the VA benefits office — his company’s neighbor — interacts with local veterans. Or doesn’t. Since late 2012, Noonan and his employees have had a front row seat to the VA’s dealings with service-disabled veterans. Sometimes, veterans looking to acquire VA benefits wander into Marker-Volkl’s offices by mistake. “They see the cubicles and think we’re the VA,” said Rose Marie Gillespie, who works in customer service.

They’ve heard stories from veterans about getting bounced between the VA in White River Junction and the benefits office in Lebanon. A woman, who said she had driven more than hour, arrived at the benefits office one day but couldn’t find anyone to help her. She didn’t believe that Marker-Volkl was in the ski business and not part of the VA.“She was upset and really frustrated,” said Karen Barden, another customer service representative.

On the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, Noonan decided to visit the VA benefits office downstairs. He wanted to get to the bottom of the missing grill, but he was also curious about why so many distressed veterans were showing up at his company’s door.

A security guard, armed with a .40-caliber Glock handgun, was stationed at the entrance. After giving his reason for stopping by, Noonan asked to see the person in charge. “Would you like to make an appointment for next Thursday?” the VA receptionist replied.

Noonan hoped to settle the matter sooner rather than later. After going behind a locked door, which she opened by punching a code into a keypad, the receptionist returned with a VA phone number in Manchester for him to call.

Back in his office, Noonan made the call. The person in Manchester informed him that he needed to call a VA administrator in Boston. He did.

“Are you an attorney?” asked the receptionist in Boston. Noonan left his number, but a week later, still hadn’t heard back.

He also called me. Partly, I think, to vent. “Is this what veterans looking for help have to go through? The bureaucracy is ridiculous,” he said. “I feel bad for our veterans. It must be terribly frustrating.”

On Wednesday, I drove over to the benefits office. The security guard and receptionist were friendly enough when I inquired about the missing grill, but couldn’t offer much help. Twice, the receptionist went behind the locked door to find someone I could talk with.

While I waited, a delivery woman came in with a large pizza and liter bottle of cola. The security guard couldn’t find the VA employee who had placed the order. “You didn’t see a lady outside smoking did you?” he asked.

When the receptionist got back, she informed me that “our office has been told not to make a comment on that issue.”

Later in the day, I received an email from Eric Rollins, a VA public affairs officer in Manchester who had a “statement” for me. “A grill which was in dilapidated condition and appeared to have been abandoned at the VA’s public entrance was relocated away from the entrance.” The grill, however “was not removed from the property.” He failed to mention where the grill might be.

I shared the VA’s response with Noonan, who assured me the grill was neither dilapidated nor abandoned. “They could have just asked us to move it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Marker-Volkl has bought a new grill, which it keeps in a storage room.

And the VA can go back to securing its facility with red tape.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com .