James DeNofrio was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, to parents who were middle class; his father worked for setting up insurance companies, and his mother was a schoolteacher. DeNofrio learned from his parents to be a “hard and strong worker, and I learned stubbornness from them.” He is a fourth-generation American. His grandfather was a janitor. “Every generation,” DeNofrio stated, “has done a little bit better, and I was the first person in my family to go to college, to graduate from college.”
DeNofrio spent summers in Salem, Massachusetts, with his grandparents. His grandfather was a World War II veteran. He remembers his grandfather saying, “If you do what’s right and you work hard, America will be wide open to you.” His grandfather was on a ship that was sunk by a U-Boat and later received a Silver Star. “He was a hero,” said DeNofrio, “and so was my other grandfather who from 1941 to 1945 operated ships in the Pacific and won multiple awards, including Purple Hearts.” He was shot in Iowa Jima and signed himself out of the hospital to return to his unit. “Stubbornness runs in my family,” DeNofrio stated.
DeNofrio’s family moved several times between the mid-1980s and1990s. He attended high school in three different places, Moving did not prove to be negative because he identifies himself as an “introvert.” Although there were several moves, DeNofrio played sports and did “all right.”
DeNofrio attended college for a year but found it was not to his liking. He enlisted in 1993. After taking military tests that showed his aptitude for military intelligence, he became an Army Intelligence Specialist and worked as a linguist. In 1995, DeNofrio was involved in an accident during training, suffering a fall and injuring his arm. The next day he had an epileptic seizure stemming from the fall and was diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). He spent six months in the hospital, and then in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, slowly recovering as an outpatient. Flagged with a Disability Status, DeNofrio could not continue serving in the military because he was not deployable. He decided he could continue serving his country with employment at Veterans Affairs (VA). Although DeNofrio was also flagged at the VA with a Disability Status, he wanted to serve his country. He was stubborn enough to continue in his efforts for employment there.
During this period, DeNofrio graduated from Penn State with an undergraduate degree and Liberty University with a Master of Arts in Religion. In 2001, the National Security Agency offered him a job, but he “turned down a job at Fort Meade to work for the VA.” DeNofrio took the Civil Service Exam and received the highest possible score plus additional points for being a disabled vet. Still, tthe VA would not employ him due to his TBI. They advised him that the VA did not hire people with disabilities. DeNofrio sued, successfully winning his case against the VA and forcing them to hire him. He wanted a job at the VA so badly because he saw veterans and even “doughboys” coming in for treatment during his medical treatment. He enjoyed talking and interacting with them.
DeNofrio began as a Medical Clerk at the Altoona VA (a GS 3 entry-level position) in order to get his “foot in the door.” Within a six-years (2002-2009), he was promoted six times, ending up as Administrator for the Physical Medicine Rehab Center. It “was a good fit,” and DeNofrio enjoyed the work. He went from program support to directing a staff of ten physical therapists and occupational therapists tasked with visiting veterans in their homes for rehabilitation purposes. However, it did not take long for DeNofrio to realize that the therapists were not doing their job.
In 2009 military personnel were coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. They would visit the VA once and not return due to the bad conditions at the Altoona VA rehabilitation department during that period. The VA received a federal grant to get two buildings built for rehabilitation that would attract quality physicians and therapists. DeNofrio was placed in charge of the buildings and patterned the rehabilitation services after Walter Reed. He brought in a Harvard physician and some of the best therapists in the VA system. In 2013, DeNofrio had taken the Altoona VA rehabilitation program from 12 employees providing care for 3,000 visits a year to 41 employees seeing 40,000 clients a year and using state-of-the-art equipment.
DeNofrio’s boss, Service Chief Frederick Struthers, was like a father to DeNofrio. Struthers started failing his performance measures and began exhibiting confusion and memory issues. Struthers, who was in his seventies, started to forget the names of employees and how to use the hospital email system. Struthers also began to misdiagnose VA patients. DeNofrio received confirmation from other professionals at the VA that Struthers’ condition was deteriorating.
DeNofrio shared his concerns with his chief of staff (Santha Kurian) and his Director (William Mills). He was shocked when days later, Struthers confronted him with the emails that DeNofrio had sent to Kurian and Mills detailing Struthers’ cognitive decline. The next day, Struthers came to work and had forgotten he confronted DeNofrio. This cycle continued, with DeNofrio referring to it as “Groundhog Day.”
DeNofrio contacted the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) with his concerns, and they turned his complaint back to DeNofrio’s VA Director. Shortly afterward, Struthers approached DeNofrio and told him that he knew he contacted the OIG — and that he should find a job somewhere else. The administration’s response to DeNofrio’s complaints was to place Struthers in charge of the TBI department. Struthers, in the midst of dementia, would approach him, asking for help with the TBI patients. There were over 600 patients in the TBI section who were not receiving the care they deserved, which resulted in seven veterans taking their own lives. One of those seven was Nicholas Horner, who killed two people and then committed suicide.
Instead of addressing the situation, the VA covered up the matter and launched a lengthy retaliatory campaign against DeNofrio. DeNofrio blew the whistle on other problems at the VA that he felt put veterans’ lives at risk. In turn, he was the subject of 18 investigations launched by the VA. The VA accused him of bullying (by making disclosures to the OIG). The retaliation against DeNofrio did not stop until Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and the House Committee of Veteran Affairs interceded on his behalf.
As part of the retaliation, a VA psychologist went into his medical records and wrote fake notes that claimed he had dementia. The psychologist then circulated the notes throughout the VA system in order to discredit DeNofrio. A vicious cycle ensued. DeNofrio would blow the whistle on misconduct or malfeasance in the VA, and the VA would retaliate. DeNofrio was denied promotions, threatened with lower performance ratings, denied overtime and comp time. “My position was marginalized to the point that it created the impression that I was irrelevant as an employee,” he said
In 2019, DeNofrio switched to a virtual position as an analyst based out of Pittsburgh. All of his former supervisory staff at the Altoona VA either retired or were replaced.
The Department of Veterans Affairs gets the largest number of whistleblower complaints of any federal agency. A law was passed to protect whistleblowers in the VA, the Veterans Accountability Act of 2017. However, a 2019 report by the VA Inspector General stated that the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) acted inconsistent with its authority and floundered in its mission to protect whistleblowers. The report noted that OAWP had no procedures to protect VA whistleblowers. In one case, they investigated a whistleblower in what looked like retaliation for him blowing the whistle. The report noted that OAWP “engaged in misdeeds and missteps that appeared unsupportive of whistleblowers.” The VA issued a statement that stated they conducted an in-depth review of DeNofrio’s allegations and determined that the most serious charges were not substantiated. The VA Inspector General determined the VA adequately addressed the allegations and closed its case in 2016.
Currently, DeNofrio has a case pending in federal court against the VA that was initiated in 2013. He works with Congress as an advocate for change at the VA and is a vital part of the whistleblower community. DeNofrio has a book coming out in the next few months and is grateful for his wife, who has stood beside him and supported him.
DeNofrio may not realize it, but he has continued the legacy of his forefathers, heroes one and all.