This is my second marathon blog post in as many weeks, the last being about a day in the life of area chefs in a competition. From a larger view, that was fluff piece; this is a very important topic. I hope you will read this all the way through. It’s very important to me and my fellow veterans that more people listen to the whole truth, the ugly truth, about how things are for us. My apologies for the length of this article, but I have been abbreviating this story long enough.
I just finished reading a very good book by Luis Carlos Montalván entitled, “Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him.” Tuesday is the golden retriever’s name. Luis suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) along with the after-effects of various physical wounds including Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI); Tuesday is his service dog. It is a compelling story about Luis’ personal experiences before, during, and after his deployments to Iraq, but mostly after. It is a story that needs to be told over and over again until the cold, hard truths in the middle of this story are heard and understood by the majority of people in our country.
I have heard it said that the truth is whatever you perceive it to be. In other words, our perception of things is the truth to us in that moment, whether it is really true or not. I sometimes find myself taking for truth things I hear on the television or read on the internet; if it all seems to fit with what I already know, I often don’t question it. But when things don’t seem to fit, I have a habit of digging around for more information. After reading this book, I think Luis and I have that in common, that burning need for the truth.
As a 22-year veteran of the Army, I can tell you unequivocally that there were times when I found myself surrounded by so many lies I didn’t think I could find the truth. At moments like those, I used to say, “It’s a good thing I’m wearing boots.” There were lies told to protect classified operations; there were lies told to avoid stepping on important toes; there were lies told to save asses (can I say ‘asses’ on here? Too late.); there were lies told to preserve the integrity of the lies told before; then there were lies told just because it became a way of life for some people. When things got a little soft underfoot, you learned to stop asking questions – unless you were me. I never stopped asking questions, and that path was definitely the road less traveled and a bumpy one. In 2001, I had finally had enough and declared I would not do it for one more damn day, after being faced with yet another instance of gender discrimination with nothing to be done about it without becoming a target for more lies and harrassment. On August 1, 2001, I left the active service with 16 years of Active Duty and 4 years of reserve service prior to that. I was officially in the Reserve for two more years, though I did not actively serve. Twenty-two years and not one more damned day.
Luis speaks in the book of several examples of where the lies – or sometimes benign neglect – of the leadership caused extreme difficulties for the soldiers at the end of the line, including him and his Soldiers. I have no doubt that it was exactly as he says it was; that there are others who questioned him and essentially called him a liar when he wrote about these things after leaving the Army does not surprise me one bit. I experienced similar circumstances during my service. That Luis was attacked by certain members of the media and was victim of a character assassination is, sadly, de rigueur for anyone who dares to speak the truth of the leadership failures in the military and our government at any level. It’s the old smoke-and-mirrors defense; we don’t have to answer those allegations, we can just discredit the accuser and people will stop listening to them. Better yet, they might just shut up and go away to stop the personal attacks. I was heartened to read a story that spoke the truth, a story to which I could relate. I am not alone in my experience; Luis has been there, too.
We Take Care of Our Own.
It seems that Luis and I also share a deep disappointment in the United States Army, or perhaps in the topmost leaders of that organization and the politicians to which they report. Like Luis, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the dirty bathwater; I love the Army and believe in its mission to defend our constitution. But like Luis, I was abandoned by the very organization to which I had devoted my life. I continue to be abandoned by our government by inadequate and often inaccessible medical care through the Veteran’s Administration (VA). I am working full time, but I can’t afford private insurance. As a certified-by-the-VA 50% Service-Connected Disabled Veteran, Title 38 of the United States Code (Federal Law) says I am entitled to 100% free medical care from the VA for the rest of my life. They even sent me a book to outline the care I am entitled to receive; too bad I can’t actually get it because of where I live, and because they don’t have the resources to provide it (I live 2 hours away from the nearest full-service VA Hospital because this is where I work).
I am not “on the dole.” Unlike most people receiving Medicaid, I earned that medical care as a benefit for illnesses and injuries incurred in the line of duty in service to my country for 22 years. But it takes me 5-6 months of waiting to see my primary care provider, and I have to drive 2 hours to Fayetteville, NC to get my eyes checked or have a mammogram. If I get sick with anything urgent, I have no medical resources. The VA is obligated to provide it to me in their facilities; the nearest facility that can see me on short notice is in Fayetteville. If I am taken to the emergency room here in town, the bill is mine to deal with. I don’t go to the doctor; if I am feeling bad or hurt myself, I deal with it and hope for the best. At least I have my needed medication; that’s more than many veterans.
There are an increasing number of people just like me, many without even the meager resources of the VA to call upon. For that, our government and its money-eating programs and policies is responsible. They are spending all of our tax money creating new programs instead of funding the ones they already have. Not to discount the needs of others in similar circumstances (the working poor that are not disabled veterans), but the government is legally obligated to take care of me under a long-standing law, not some new policy. They are not doing it. Why are they writing new laws for more services of this ilk for the general population when they can’t even sustain the programs they have for Veterans? (The services are being cut even more under the so-called Sequestering process, which is akin to a bankruptcy reorganization that our government is undergoing. Just this week President Obama pledged more money for VA services, but where it will come from no one knows.)
About this we could talk for hours, or at least I could. Instead, I just want you to know that there are hundreds of thousands of veterans in my situation, many who have PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) that they cannot substantiate to the VA because the paperwork wasn’t done properly while they were deployed. In yet another twist of betrayal, the Army encourages Soldiers to “suck it up” when they are hurting rather than seek medical treatment; this absence of a medical paper trail later makes it hard to get the care to which they are entitled under law. Those that can substantiate their problems administratively are waiting as long as 2 years for the VA to review their claim. Even soldiers who lose limbs can be left waiting for up to 2 years for their VA claim to be reviewed while they suffer, unable to work or feed their families, having to apply for welfare because the VA has yet to look at their claim. Veterans who lose limbs in the line of duty are entitled to adequate compensation to live on under Title 38; but if they have to wait 2 years to begin to receive it, how will they survive in the interim? They have been left behind.
If you’ve heard on the news that the VA has fixed their administrative problems and they are all caught up on the paperwork, you have been fed a lie. I have a friend who retired from the Army about 21 months ago who is still waiting for the VA to review her claim; her last tour in Afghanistan was extremely traumatic and she knows she needs help, but she can’t get it. She finally found a private counseling firm that is taking her on as a client and working with her on payments. Another friend who retired the year before had her claim reviewed at the 2-year point. My friends are lucky; they also have health insurance through TRICARE since they are retirees and can get their care through other sources. Many thousands of us are not that fortunate, and many are far worse off than me. I am already “in” the VA system, such as it is; getting in is seemingly insurmountable for some veterans; 2 years might as well be 20 years, so grave is the impact of that wait on their health and well-being.
Their battle will not end with a review, either. They will likely have part of their claim denied and will have to file an appeal and wait again. This is a standard outcome with VA Disability Claims; it took my original claim 14 months to be reviewed, and part of it was denied even though the paperwork was in order. It took me getting a review by a different VA office to get my claim processed (which I was only able to do because I had moved and jurisdiction over my claim had changed as a result). It is an uphill climb to get into the VA system. That Luis was accused by a reporter of ‘faking’ his injuries after the VA had processed his claim is laughable; if the VA said his injuries are for real, they most certainly are and he likely suffered many indignities to secure that ruling.
Why Haven’t We Heard About This?
There are those, such as Luis, who have spoken out. Like Luis, they all paid a high personal price for their honesty and suffered attacks on their characters or just weren’t believed. If they happened to also have an addiction problem or have had scrapes with law enforcement (both very common among troubled, untreated veterans), they were ignored as not credible. Also, Soldiers are trained to keep quiet, not to air the Army’s dirty laundry in public. It’s part of the culture; we talk about it amongst ourselves, but never out in town. Like victims of physical abuse, we just don’t talk about it to outsiders.
The major media outlets will not cover stories like wounded Soldiers being abandoned by the government. They need access to government officials for their feature stories; they can’t risk alienating them by covering unsavory stories of government inadequacy or failure. Instead, the media outlets run stories showing happy endings, help received, high-tech prosthesis donated, and modified homes built by Habitat for Humanity for our wounded warriors. This is all great stuff, but if the government just compensated these wounded warriors in a timely manner like they should, they wouldn’t need to have a house donated. You won’t see a story like Luis’ on any of the big National TV news programs. There is simply too much to lose for them to take on a story of this nature and magnitude.
Just use Google and search for “Veterans waiting for Benefits.” The stories are out there with reputable news sources, they just don’t make the National news because it is politically unsavory. All roads lead back to Congress and the White House, and the media does not like to shake that tree too hard.
Make Some Noise.
Just because you don’t hear it on TV doesn’t mean it’s not true. Likewise, just because you read it in print doesn’t make it so. Talk to a veteran and ask her what her experience has been, and research it for yourself. The truth can be found in the words of those living in this situation.
If you are as outraged about this abandonment and neglect of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines as I hope you are, talk about it. Tell everyone you know. Help us raise awareness. Maybe you can even write a letter or email to your Congressmen asking them to do something about it. Nothing gets done in this country without public outcry. Many of these Troops cannot or will not speak for themselves, lest they be perceived as ‘weak’. They defended your freedom and your life; maybe you could make some noise for them in their time of need.
To our Government, I send this plea: Please don’t leave me and my fellow veterans without our earned health care, not for one more damn day.