U.S. Rep. Roby seeks answers after Montgomery VA's refusal of 'Christmas' gifts
Jordan McLendon simply wanted to honor her late grandfather, who was a Vietnam veteran, by giving some Christmas gifts she made to local veterans at the Montgomery Veterans Affairs Hospital. After being denied the ability to share the gifts because the word "Christmas" was on the packaging, McClendon is finding support from a U.S. Congresswoman who calls the incident "senseless censorship" and says she wants answers.
Rep. Martha Roby, who represents the people of Alabama's Second District, called McClendon after seeing her story on WSFA 12 News. The congresswoman says she is now pressing the Department of Veterans Affairs for answers regarding the rebuffed gifts.
"I was touched by the thoughtfulness and patriotism Jordan showed by wanting to do something special for veterans on Christmas, then horrified to learn that such an act of kindness would be restricted in the name of political correctness," Rep. Roby said.
Rep. Roby issued a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki asking if a policy exists with the department, and reminded him that Christmas is a federally-recognized holiday.
In the letter, the congresswoman wants text of all policies the VA holds in regards to specific words such as "Jesus" and "Christmas". She also wants specific answers on how the department correct the issue.
"I made over a hundred goodie bags. I put candy in the goodie bags and I wrote out over a hundred Christmas cards," McClendon explained. The Wetumpka resident says she spent two days making the gifts for delivery to all the veterans at the VA Hospital on Perry Hill Road in Montgomery. She said she did it because many veterans don't get visits from their family on Christmas.
When McLendon arrived on Christmas Eve morning, a VA official told her she couldn't deliver all of them because some of the cards and bags had 'Merry Christmas' on them.
"I wasn't mad, McClendon said, "I was just speechless," telling WSFA 12 News she had been assured by a receptionist on the phone before she made the trip that the items were acceptable.
Dr. Cliff Robinson, the acting director for the VA Hospital, declined an opportunity to go on camera but would say that the VA cannot give the impression that it favors one religion. He says these are not his rules but guidelines handed down years ago by the VA Administration in Washington, D.C., adding that the VA in Montgomery has a diverse population with various backgrounds and strives to respect all beliefs.
Robinson even cited veteran requests from several years ago that they not have to hear Christmas carolers.
"My frustration is not with the VA staff at the local facility, who appear to have reluctantly enforced what they believe to be an existing regulation," Rep Roby writes. "I understand that similar incidents have occurred at other VA facilities in the past. Rather, my concern is that such a senseless policy exists to begin with, or, in the case that no such policy expressly prohibits mentioning Christmas in cases like this, that the culture of bureaucracy at the VA would encourage facility administrators to err on the side of suppressing religious expression and discouraging acts of kindness toward veterans."
McLendon admits the VA official who wouldn't allow her to deliver all the cards and bags was nice about the situation, but she still doesn't understand why this has to be.
"He actually kept on saying how sorry he was," McLendon explained," that it wasn't his fault. He could see the tears in my eyes and was apologetic. He said this was beyond his control, but these veterans fought for our country and I can't do this for them?"
The 20-year old McLendon ended up delivering just 18 bags and 2 cards because they were generic enough to pass the VA's guidelines.
Asked whether he personally agreed with the guidelines, Dr. Robinson had 'no comment.' Meantime, Dr. Robinson applauded McLendon's good intentions and big heart but insisted rules are rules.
Still, Rep. Roby finds issue with such rules. "We try to teach our children to respect and honor those who serve our country, and to show kindness and compassion to others. What kind of message is our government sending by discouraging selfless acts of giving unless they are sterilized to remove anything remotely religious?"
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