4 Investigates: Vet’s family still stonewalled by VA
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A year and a half ago, Fred Gardner’s family started thinking a lot about duty, honor and the debt owed by our country to veterans after they serve.
A transport shuttle at Albuquerque Veterans Affairs hospital ran down the 87-year-old, decorated Air Force vet. He died the next day.
The Gardners began trying to figure out just what happened – and just who was at the wheel. They still have nothing but questions.
“It wasn’t that he just died. He was killed in an accident. And we’ve had problems getting any answers,” said Jim Gardner.
His brother, Richards sat nearby.
“It’s not just ‘Dad’s heart gave way. Dad had cancer. It was his time.’ It was untimely. And all of the reminders. I still listen to classical music like Dad did and,” Richard took a long pause.
His sons and daughter-in-law have had to deal not only with the ongoing trauma of losing a father, but the frustration of a federal agency that steadfastly refuses to disclose who was driving the federal vehicle and whether he’s still employed by – and driving for – the VA.
The Veterans Affairs Department did not answer questions for this story from 4 Investigates.
“It really feels like the day that we disconnected life support,” said Cheryl Hawks-Gardner, Jim’s wife. “We’re still there.”
The Gardners have gone to war with the VA on his behalf, filing suit after spending almost a year pursuing answers, then another six months after filing notice that they intended to sue.
“The thing that I keep coming back to is that, had it been me that was run over, Dad would take that place apart brick by brick to find out how, why, and to prevent it from ever happening again,” Jim said.
They’re asking for $17.5 million.
The figure stands in sharp contrast to the three traffic tickets VA police wrote for the unnamed driver.
“Three 25-dollar tickets are worth a man’s life. A veteran’s life,” Cheryl said.
The suit claims the VA took nearly three hours to transfer Fred to the area’s only level one trauma center at the University of New Mexico. It also says medical staff at the VA did not send over his records, including post-crash imaging that had to be duplicated by UNM in the important first few hours after the crash.
“And the idea that they transferred this human being who was so violently injured without any medical records,” Cheryl choked up.
“It’s beyond belief,” finished Jim.
The Gardners told 4 Investigates they hoped for accountability, but have been continually disappointed.
Their attorney, Elicia Montoya, showed a letter the VA wrote to Richard Gardner that denied burial benefits.
The reason, a nameless regional office director wrote, was that Fred Gardner’s death – at the hands of a VA employee and literally at the front step of the agency’s hospital – was not related to his service to his country.