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Twilight Brigade Comforts Dying Veterans. Now They're Fighting Eviction From VA's West LA Campus

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Twilight Brigade volunteers (left-right) Jim McPhie, Shirrell McCarey and training director Shelley Whizin. (Libby Denkmann/KPCC)
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Earlier this year, a volunteer organization that visits sick and dying veterans was notified it would have to pack up and move out of its offices in Building 258 on the West Los Angeles VA campus.

Several other groups have also been told to vacate in recent months, including a group of Jewish war veterans, and the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, which put on a production of Henry IV in the campus's Japanese Garden last summer.

Now hospice volunteers with The Twilight Brigade are speaking out, arguing their group deserves to stay on the VA campuses in West L.A. and North Hills to continue helping dying patients, as they've been doing for 21 years.

So, why the evictions? It all stems from an Inspector General report that was issued last September. The watchdog said eleven leases were in violation of the West Los Angeles Leasing Act, passed by Congress in 2016 to govern how the valuable 388-acre campus can be used.

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That law says land use should "principally benefit veterans and their families," but the Inspector General found several leases fell short -- including the VA's contract with the private Brentwood School, which uses 22 acres of VA land for a sports complex. (The school pays $850,000 per year in rent along with $918,000 in "non-monetary, in-kind consideration" -- like allowing vets to use their athletic facilities.)

Others leases that were deemed illegal: a city park, a parrot sanctuary, and an oil drilling operation.

Paying rent isn't enough to comply with the law, as the OIG points out:

"Agreements are veteran-focused if they result in additional healthcare, benefits, services, or resources being provided directly to veterans and/or their families on the WLA campus. Monetary proceeds paid to VA alone will not constitute an acceptable agreement, nor will agreements that only benefit the public at large."

The OIG investigation also found 14 organizations were operating on the West L.A VA campus without valid agreements -- either there was no paperwork, or their land-use agreements had expired. The Twilight Brigade falls in the latter category, along with a 9-hole golf course and the Gary Sinise Foundation, established by the actor who played Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump.

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The founder of the Twilight Brigade says his organization provides important companionship and support to veterans facing their last days, and it should be allowed to negotiate a new agreement to stay on the campus.

"All we do is serve veterans," said Dannion Brinkley, a Vietnam-era Marine Corps veteran who started the organization in 1997. "Who takes our place? Who will be there tomorrow by the bedside of those veterans?"

Some of Twilight Brigade's staff and volunteers spoke out at an oversight hearing at the VA hospital in Brentwood last week.

Training director Shelley Whizin first connected with the group in 2011 when she was helping a friend go through the hospice and dying process.

"Doing rounds at the VA, I noticed how isolated and lonely many of the veterans are," Whizin told members of the Veterans and Community Oversight and Engagement Board at the meeting on April 16. "It's a great privilege to be able to witness that transition from this world to wherever they go."

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The evictions are just the latest chapter in a long saga over how to properly use hundreds of acres of prime real estate next to the 405 freeway in West L.A. The VA is in the process of overhauling its massive campus, the result of a 2015 legal settlement with disabled and homeless veterans. The plan includes at least 1,200 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless vets.

A final environmental review of the Master Plan to remake the sprawling VA facility is expected in May.

[READ MORE: Everything You Need To Know About The Massive, Decaying West L.A. VA Campus -- And The Plan To Fix It]

At a public meeting in January, the Executive Director of the West L.A. VA's Master Plan discussed the department's response to the OIG report. Meghan Flanz said the Greater Los Angeles VA Healthcare System has until September 2019 to respond to the investigation, but will be giving quarterly reports on its progress leading up to that deadline.

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"We plan to be as transparent as can be as we move forward to try to do the right thing to ensure that we're making proper use of the campus," Flanz said. "The variety of things available to us include terminating a land-use [agreement] that the IG found to be improper and renegotiating that land use to try to bring it within compliance with applicable law. We're still in the process of figuring out what our strategy is."

To Vietnam vet James McPhie, the evictions are the result of a lack of strategy -- a hasty overreaction by VA hospital leadership to the OIG report. As he sees it, officials are essentially cleaning house,"not with the precision of an A-10 Warthog, but rather with indiscriminate carpet bombing. I can appreciate that the inspector general might take issue with whether hospitalized veterans were benefiting from baseball fields and dog parks," McPhie added "but that should not be the case with the Twilight Brigade."