4 Investigates: VA shields details of veteran’s death

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As Fred Gardner’s family tells it, he tried to join the Air Force four times before he finally found a legitimate way to enlist.

Family lore or no, he was indisputably all-in on his military service.

Gardner served in Southeast Asia and Vietnam, earning a Bronze Star for integrating radar systems for different branches of the military. His commendation rings with phrases like “exemplary leadership”, “personal endeavor” and “devotion to duty.”

Part of the deal the United States makes with veterans like Fred Gardner is that, if they spend part of their lives serving those back home, those back home will return the favor. It’s why the Department of Veterans Affairs exists and why Raymond G. Murphy Medical Center stands in Albuquerque.

On May 31, as the 87-year-old Gardner walked through the crosswalk just outside of the front doors of the hospital, a V.A. transport van blew a stop sign, turned left and ran him down. A day later, mortally wounded, he died after being transferred to the University of New Mexico.

The Gardner family has been fighting with the V.A. for details of his death. After nearly four months, they’ve received less than half of a heavily redacted police report from the Veterans Affairs Police and about 10 minutes of surveillance video.

Both are disappointing to the Gardners and raise questions about the V.A. response.

Three traffic tickets were issued to an unnamed V.A. employee who was driving a government vehicle. Records officer Steven Bailey redacted the driver’s name as well as those of all witnesses. The V.A. says it’s because of the Privacy Act of 1974.

More than half – 18 of 31 pages – are withheld from the report. The V.A. told 4 Investigates it is reviewing its response to determine if the rest of the report is releasable under the Freedom of Information Act or another “provision of law to provide maximum transparency.”

The Gardners’ attorney, Elicia Montoya, disputes the redactions and other evidence that has not been released by the agency. In a letter, she sharply criticized the police decision to issue three tickets – two of them have a $25 fine, which is the same for “spitting on property.”

Gardner’s family, including son and daughter-in-law Jim and Cheryl and son Richard, said Gardner found a family in the military.

“The Air Force gave him the opportunity to learn and to show knowledge,” said Richard Gardner.

“He loved flying and he said, basically, ‘Anything to get in the air’,” remembered Jim Gardner.

He met his wife Elizabeth at a cadets’ dance and married her the day before his military oath. The two traveled together when they could – and the Gardner family said Elizabeth joined him in Taiwan, which was his final posting before moving back to the U.S. The family spent decades exploring the Southwest, often climbing high mountain passes in an old Land Rover.

In retirement, an old military injury to Fred’s knee kept acting up. It wasn’t until after Elizabeth’s death in 2010 that he decided to get surgery at a V.A. facility. The Gardners believe – though say they haven’t been told – that Fred was coming from a checkup on the day he was hit by the V.A. van.

Cheryl Gardner said it’s difficult to understand the secrecy around her father-in-law’s death. To her, it feels like a cover-up.

“It’s a loaded term,” said Jim, before shrugging as if no other term seemed apt.

“But why can’t we get these answers,” asked Cheryl. “Why?”

The V.A. has repeatedly issued a short statement about Fred Gardner’s death: “While there are no words that can ease the pain of the loss of Mr. Gardner, we send our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.”

The agency referred questions about potential further legal action to U.S. Attorney Alexander Uballez in Albuquerque. Spokesman Scott Howell refused to confirm that the office had received the case.