Andrea Bernhardt didn’t work for the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center, but she feels like she got fired by it last month anyway.
For the past 11 years, Bernhardt ran a program that gives veterans rides to their VA appointments. She did that work from a VA office, but she wasn’t a VA employee. Instead, Bernhardt was employed by the nonprofit organization Disabled American Veterans to run the ride service. To the VA, she was an unpaid volunteer.
Bernhardt and her boss Brigitte Marker believe that Bernhardt was wrongly pushed out because the VA hoped to shut down the DAV service on its campus. Former Interim VA Director Dave Whitmer asserted Bernhardt had to leave because she couldn’t work well with others. What they do agree on is that over the course of an ongoing conflict between Bernhardt and a handful of VA employees, the number of volunteers delivering rides to veterans dropped.
In Bernhardt’s view, the problems began in 2013, when the Roseburg VA started another veteran ride service, the Veterans Transportation Service. VTS gave rides to veterans who were in wheelchairs or otherwise unable to walk, while DAV provided rides to the rest. At first, Bernhardt was in the same office with VTS employees. She said one of them began verbally harassing her to the point she felt physically unsafe. After that, she was moved to a separate office.
Recently, she was reassigned back to the VTS office. The employee she feared was still in it, so she asked for the door to remain open at all times, but said the employees kept closing it. She said items were moved around on her desk, and she was questioned by the VA police about some blankets that allegedly went missing in the American Legion’s store after she had volunteered to help them. She said all of it was harassment, and she began to feel unsafe again.
Bernhardt alleged some VA employees hoped to eliminate DAV, and said they waged a successful campaign to get rid of her. While losing the DAV would cost the VA more money, and could mean fewer rides for veterans, Bernhardt thinks some VA employees were more interested in the perks they’d get from expanding their own programs.
Whitmer said the VA wanted to streamline services between the two ride-giving organizations, but he said he never wanted to remove the DAV. He wanted the two programs to share a single phone number for veterans to call and have a VA employee “triage” the calls and determine which service would pick up which veteran. He said Bernhardt was too interested in maintaining control, while he was concerned with what would be easier for the veterans.
“We value DAV ... We appreciate the vehicles that are there. We certainly appreciate the volunteers. Our goal was to augment and really have a better interaction between DAV and VTS,” Whitmer said.
But whether Whitmer knew it or not, it appears some at the VA did hope to eliminate DAV services and at least one of the VA’s directors was aware of it.
Bernhardt acquired and shared an October email from Marc Chevalier, the VA’s national coordinator for VTS, in which he responded to a query from a VTS employee in another state about whether the Disabled American Veterans organization would be incorporated into the VTS.
Chevialier replied, “Absolutely not. Roseburg was going to try that — but after I met with the Director they are taking another direction.”
The director in question wasn’t named. Whitmer had been interim director for less than a year at that time.
Whitmer said Bernhardt was difficult to work with, and things weren’t improving. He said he couldn’t fire four employees to retain one volunteer. So in his last week at the Roseburg VA before returning home to Florida, he moved to remove her.
“I felt like this was a tough decision I needed to make, and not have it saddled on the next director,” he said.
Whitmer said Bernhardt shouldn’t have been surprised about losing her position. He said there were at least three intervention meetings beforehand. Marker said DAV brought in a mediator at one point but the VA employees walked out of the meeting.
According to a timeline compiled by the DAV, at about 11 a.m. Dec. 17, Whitmer announced in a teleconference with DAV officials that he planned to terminate Bernhardt’s credentials that day. The decision would bar her from accessing the VA’s computers and other resources she needed. Marker unhappily came to the conclusion that she had to let Bernhardt go, because the VA wouldn’t let her do her job.
She let Bernhardt know, and Bernhardt decided to leave at noon, turning in her badge and volunteer ID before she could be forced out.
“I wasn’t going to be humiliated by being escorted off the property by police. I just wasn’t going to do that. That wasn’t OK,” Bernhardt said.
In Bernhardt’s absence, the DAV program has continued to operate at the VA. It’s advertising for a new employee, and in the meantime, Marker has stepped into Bernhardt’s role — even though she lives in Klamath Falls and has to stay at a motel through the transition.
Marker described Bernhardt as a “rock solid” employee. She believes there was a coordinated effort by VA employees to force Bernhardt out — including refusing to process new volunteers who wanted to join DAV and drive veterans to appointments.
The number of DAV volunteers have dramatically shrunk since the VTS program came to Roseburg VA in 2013. According to the DAV, the overall number of veteran trips they’ve provided has dropped from 1200 to 200 per month. They have been unable to provide transportation from North Bend to Roseburg despite receiving three veteran calls each week hoping for those rides. Roseburg to Portland trips have decreased from 5 to 3 days per week.
Whitmer acknowledged the number of volunteers has dropped, but alleged that’s partly because Bernhardt was badmouthing the current volunteer services chief — a charge Bernhardt denies.
Marker said after she replaced Bernhardt, new drivers were promptly processed for the DAV program.
“All of a sudden these drivers started popping out of the woodwork. It’s strange. I don’t know what to make of this situation,” she said. “Everybody seems so overly nice that I’m waiting for the dagger to fall.”