State Veterans Affairs Commission hears community concerns about commandant turnover
Meeting follows former IVH Commandant’s resignation
Calls for answers and transparency regarding former Iowa Veterans Home Commandant Matthew Peterson’s recent resignation echoed through Marshalltown’s Whitehill Auditorium on the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 5, during a quarterly Iowa Commission of Veterans Affairs meeting, as numerous IVH residents, Marshalltown community members, and even state legislators voiced their concerns.
Peterson, who served as the commandant for approximately 13 months and as the director of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs for only four months, abruptly submitted his resignation early in September, leaving many with questions about the circumstances surrounding his departure.
Before the floor was opened to public comment, Adam Steen, who has been serving as the interim IDVA director since Peterson’s resignation, took some time to provide an update on the hiring process for a new permanent IDVA director as well as a new IVH commandant.
Steen said they have frozen hiring at the VA until the commandant position is filled, and he said he has been “in regular communication” with the governor’s office, which is currently accepting resumes. Steen said they are expecting to determine who the new commandant will be very soon.
One individual in the audience asked if the commandant candidates speak with anyone outside of the governor’s office, such as veterans or the IVH Residents Council before being selected, and Steen said that he was unaware of any official process for that. The governor’s office, however, does speak with the commission prior to making that decision.
After a few other routine items were covered, the floor was opened for public comment, and many people spoke up regarding the concerns they had with the IVH, especially regarding Peterson’s resignation.
Rep. Sue Cahill, a Democrat from Marshalltown, took time to speak during the meeting and said many of her constituents had reached out to her regarding Peterson’s departure.
“I have received in the last two months a number, many, calls, letters, emails from community members, from employees of IVH and from residents at IVH that are very concerned about the leadership changes that have taken place in late August and September,” Cahill said. “I’m very concerned about the change in leadership, and it was discussed earlier. We’ve had four commandants in the last eight years. It seems to me, in my opinion, that there are some system-wide changes that we need to explore to make sure that if we are changing our leadership, we’re doing it for the right reason.”
Cahill said the changes are necessary to make IVH a caring home for veterans, and she encouraged the commission and the governor’s office to find other methods of evaluating the provided care.
“I encourage a systematic way to investigate what’s going on here. We deserve, our community, our veterans, our employees, deserve to have quality care and consistency of leadership,” Cahill said. “I believe that that is their right and it is our obligation, so I would ask the commission to instigate with what is in your power, to ask for an audit or an investigation.”
One resident, who was admitted to IVH in October 2019, said she has contacted U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst to request a federal investigation because of the rapid turnover of commandants, which she called “absolutely ridiculous.” She also said she believed the IVH Resident Council should have some kind of input on the selection of the commandant.
“Why is this a political appointment when it is so important to the health and welfare of the state’s veterans? I really do feel it needs to be taken out of the political arena,” the resident said. “Take it out of that governor’s hand. I don’t care what party he or she is, take it out of their hands. It should not be political. I don’t particularly care to have my life depend on what she does.”
Don Feld, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Marshalltown, also spoke during the meeting, and before commenting, he asked for a show of hands of who attended the meeting to support Peterson. Many hands went up.
“Well, that’s what I’m here to do. I’m here to support Matt Peterson,” Feld said.
Feld said he got to know Peterson when he joined the Kiwanis group that Feld is a part of, and through Peterson, Feld learned of many programs that he planned to implement at IVH.
“He had many plans, and most of those plans were pointed at bringing this place to be a more family-oriented environment for the veterans, and also, which is maybe even more important, is to start to prepare this place for the younger veterans,” Feld said. “We felt all these programs that he told us about, that he was trying to bring here, were all directed to improve the environment for the veterans. So, we were very disappointed to hear of his dismissal.”
Feld said that he believed that Peterson was bringing a new and needed perspective to IVH, but he believed he was running into friction when trying to implement his ideas.
“I really feel that we need to reconsider his dismissal. I don’t know if that’s at all possible, but I think he’s a very honorable man, a very intelligent man, a very experienced man, and he was very successful, we felt, in the programs that he brought to this home,” Feld said.
Another audience member said that if the University of Iowa had 10 football coaches in the last 20 years, people would be “in here with pitchforks and nooses.”
“I did get to know Matt Peterson,” he said. “To have this guy forced out, you know that there is a clique here that is running this place, and it is not who it should be and that doesn’t take a whole lot of brains to figure out who that is, and this board needs to move on it. I mean, this is ridiculous.”
Iowa State Senator Jeff Edler also spoke during the public comment period, and he thanked everyone for coming out to show their support for the veterans. He also voiced his thanks to Peterson for his work as well.
“Commandant Peterson was doing a great job bringing programs that everyone’s already touched on. I won’t go there. I just want to say thank you to him. Thank you to all of our staff members, past and present for the job they have done, and I just want to say I am dedicated to making sure quality of life at IVH does nothing but go up,” Edler said. “I’m very willing to take a look and make sure our veterans are getting the quality of care and quality of life they deserve.”
Several other community members spoke, either to show support for Peterson, or raise concerns about staffing or the quality-of-care veterans receive at IVH. The audience asked the commission to look further into IVH affairs and at upper management and asked for transparency throughout the process.
Commission Chair Elizabeth Ledvina assured the audience that their first priority is the well-being of veterans, and she thanked each individual for commenting and raising their concerns.
“I think we seriously have to look into this. I know we’re seriously going to look into this. I greatly appreciate the comments from the public and the staff that is here. Again, I’ve stated a number of times, we do support you. That’s our job, or we would not do this job because we don’t get paid. We’re volunteers,” Ledvina said. “So that’s why we’re here. We’re here to support you all.”
Ledvina said the commission would absolutely “look into” the issues raised and that they would not just “leave it alone.”
“If nothing is documented, it didn’t happen, just like for nursing,” Commission Veterans of Foreign Wars Representative Carol Whitmore said. “So if you have comments, either good, bad and different, you have to put it down and I’m going to tell them to send it to Liz Ledvina, so that we have all the documentation to either support or do an investigation. That’s the only way it can happen, is if there’s documentation.”
To reach Ledvina, email email@example.com.
Alex Murphy, the communications director for the governor’s office, could not be immediately reached for comment regarding the search for a new commandant or the turnover rate in recent years at IVH.