Shakeup at Military and Veteran Affairs receives bipartisan support

The shakeup at the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and the removal of the heads of the state’s veterans’ homes in Paramus and Menlo Park on Friday was met with bipartisan support.

Republican State Sens. Joe Pennacchio (R-Montville), Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa) and Steve Oroho (R-Sparta) called the changes “necessary and long overdue.”

U.S. Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-5th Dist.) and Bill Pascrell (D-9th Dist.) said it was a “long time coming.”

Murphy announced Friday that Col. Dr. Lisa Hou will become interim adjutant general and commissioner of the department, effective immediately.

Maj. Gen. Jemal Beale. (File photo)

Hou, the current DMAVA deputy adjutant general, replaces Maj. Gen. Jemal Beale. Also out are the heads of the two veterans’ homes, Matthew Schottlander in Paramus and Elizabeth Heedles in Menlo Park.

Veterans’ homes were hard hit in the opening stages of the pandemic; 190 residents have died. All five elected officials said even more action is needed.

“Here today is a measure of accountability to the families who lost loved ones,” Gottheimer and Pascrell said in a joint statement. “We applaud the state of New Jersey for removing the leadership. It cannot stop here. We need a full report of what happened so that we can improve policies to ensure a tragedy like this won’t ever be repeated.”

More than 80 residents died in Paramus and more than 100 residents died at the Menlo Park facility — or approximately one in three.

Pennachio pointed to problems in all facilities for older adults.

“While I am pleased this is an attempt to address some of the administration’s failures, there still is much work to be done after the disastrous COVID toll in all of our nursing homes,” he said in a statement. “An independent legislative review, a Senate Select Committee with subpoena powers, is still necessary to determine how more than 7,100 people died in nursing homes across the state, to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Oroho said the key is preventing such a tragedy from happening again.

“The conditions in these homes were unfathomable, and the lack of transparency and accountability is unforgivable,” Oroho said. “What happened in these state-run facilities is a heartbreaking disgrace. There could be no more disgraceful way to treat our veterans.

“We still need to study the exact policies that failed to give families and residents the assurance that necessary changes are understood and implemented.”

Murphy, who has long been critical of the uneven response from veterans’ homes and long-term care facilities, did not speak directly to the shakeup last week; he spoke only in support of the new leaders, particularly Hou.

“Having served as a field surgeon in Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of the conflicts and as a respected medical professional, Dr. Hou will provide invaluable leadership during the ongoing pandemic,” he said.

Corrado said she hoped the new leaders will provide the necessary leadership.

“It has been clear all along that inadequate and unprepared leadership contributed to the horrible loss of life in our veterans’ homes,” she said. “This is a badly needed housecleaning, and it is my hope that the new leadership will get to work immediately to ensure the protection and well-being of the residents under their care in the event of another COVID outbreak.”