"Freedom and responsibility we speak of easily, nearly always without recognition of the iron courage required to make them effective in our lives." j. glenn gray

Friday, October 1, 2010

Hope Springs Eternal

Well, been absent a while. Out fighting my demons again. Let's bring this puppy up to speed...

Hmmm, where to start? Where to start??? OK, how's this: It's now been ~7 months and nobody, not a soul, from BABA has made any attempt to contact the Bensons... period. No phone call. No email. No text. No snail mail. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Not a peep. Kinda weird for an organization that indicated their "high level of concern" for the Benson's well-being and that they stated they were still going to provide the Benson's with a home. Especially weird when you consider that Dan Walrath was picked by CNN to be one of their Top 10 "Heroes". Harumph! Some kind of hero. The shit hits the fan and he immediately throws his Troops under the bus, takes the money and hauls ass in a different direction. As long as there is greed there will always be a need for our men & women in uniform.

As for me, well, I rode WWP SoldierRide Texas again in March. This year we road North from San Antonio to Dallas/Ft. Worth. It rained & was cold again in San Antone but by the time we got to Temple/Ft. Hood it was warm and sunny. The Spring wind whipped us a bit but everybody carried on and all had a good experience. Along with a bunch of great OEF/OIF Troopers, I got to meet a man from our Sponsor, Boston Scientific, named Sam Holiday (picture below is of Sam and I & taken during SoldierRide California in May). Great guy and an awesome cyclist. His story in itself should be in a book of what America is all about. I found out from Sam that Boston Scientific makes a spinal cord stimulator that may be able to reduce and/or relieve my chronic leg and low back pain.

I went back to Houston and set an appoint with my primecare doctor at VAMC DeBakey in order to ascertain whether or not we could use the spinal cord stimulator approach to treat my 100% Service-Connected chronic pain issue. The doctor flat out told me that the VA would NOT approve such an expensive procedure and when I asked him for a referral to Pain Management so they could tell me such, he refused. Additionally, even after having told him point blank that I no longer wanted to take a bunch of pills and that they were having a negative impact upon my health and my quality of life... he wrote me 5 new prescriptions and told me they would be ready in the pharmacy when I left! Wow! I subsequently contacted Sam and my wife contacted the VA. Sam hooked me up with his team here in Houston who immediately went to bat for me by calling the VA directly and appraising the right people of my situation. Theresa had the VA change my primecare doctor to a more professional and learned individual whom I then had an appointment with some time later.

So, while we're waiting on this to happen...

I went and road SoldierRide California from Los Angeles to San Diego in May. No wonder there are so many fricken people in Southern California... it is absolutely gorgeous! I loved it! The weather. The people. The scenery. Everything. I even got to go to Sea World and watch the Orca show. That was kind of weird sitting there watching the show while thinking of Dawn Brancheau and Tilikum. It was a great show though and afterward I got to meet the trainers and talk a bit. I learned a bunch and really enjoyed the experience. I also got to meet and speak with an CMH Recipient, a Tuskeegee Airman, Cpt Dan Schindler from RAAM Team 4 Mil, a few celebrities, the Iceman Chuck Lidell and Rick Allen (the drummer for Def Leopard). I even gave Rick Allen my SoldierRide jersey right off my back! That was a switch and, you know, I think he actually really appreciated it. Great guy. Very well grounded. DB Sweeney was a cool character too... just a regular guy. Very cool. Also in Cali I again hooked up with a bunch of really, really great American Troopers whom CNN should be more interested in putting before the public as Heroes than the aforementioned what's-his-name. I also got to ride with Sam again and some of his folks from Boston Scientific, including a fella by the name of Mike Roman who just happens to be the World Land Speed Record Holder. Ah, what a character Mike is. Great, great individual whom I feel honored to have met and ridden with. His story too is one of how to overcome tragedy and not only be active and engaging in life but to totally excel at whatever you choose to do with it. His is a great story of overcoming adversity and becoming more than you ever thought you could. OK, that's kind of redundant but, I really can't say enough good stuff about Mike. You can learn more about Mike here: (Sorry about the pics, but Mike moves around so fast it's hard to get a good picture unless you have a high-speed camera! LOL!)

After CA SoldierRide, Summer came on fast here in Houston. The quicksilver shot up along with our 3rd Coast humidity and, for some weird reason, it hit me really hard this year. I couldn't manage riding my 27-mile "around-the-block" ride let alone any cross-country events. My stamina went through the floor and my attitude followed. After a few weeks of this I stopped and really listened to what my body was trying to tell me. I figured out that I was simply poisoning myself with the long-term use of prescription medications. I had become sensitive to sunlight burning easily along with becoming dizzy and faint if out in it too long. I had no muscle strength or endurance. I felt nauseous constantly and had no desire to be social in any way, which is really weird because I am a very social individual. In fact, my wife says I've never met a stranger. It was a weird feeling and one that I was not used to and didn't care for at all. I changed up a few things & scaled back on the Rx until the withdrawal symptoms turned me into a real asshole and then let it level out. I spent my days playing mad xbox Battlefield Bad Co. 2 in order to give my mind something to concentrate on while my body went through the sweats and shakes and tremors. I'm now taking only one Rx instead of seven and hopefully, if this spinal cord stimulator works out, will be able to get off of that one too. I've lost 10lbs and feel just so much better that it amazes me. I feel stronger, more driven and with a desire to engage life again rather than avoid it. Meeting and riding with all of the Troops on SoldierRide as well as Sam Holiday and Mike Roman and, along with having friends like Scotty and the Bensons and a wonderful and supportive wife gave me a considerable pool of strength and inspiration from which to draw. I don't think I could have done it without you guys. Thank you all.

So that is how my Summer of `10 went. Oh, yeah. I don't want to leave y'all hanging out there so this is how my VA experience has gone thus far... This new doctor just happened to be the one I had some 2 years previously and is the head of the primecare staff at DeBakey. Well, he listened to me, reviewed my file and discussed the situation at depth with Theresa and I. He readily accepted that my situation was not something he could treat in general medicine, that prescription medications were NOT going to resolve the issue and that I should have a direct route to Pain Mgt without having to go through primecare for a referral every time I needed something regarding this injury. He personally called upstairs to Pain Mgt to request and appointment right there on the spot (of course he couldn't get anybody to answer the phone so he ended up having to send an electronic request but, he tried and that says a lot). He also took the initiative to schedule me for a CT Myelogram so that the Pain Mgt folks would have up-to-date films to use to assess the situation (this too was an epic fail as the office called to schedule the appointment a week later and left me a message when I didn't answer; I then called 6 times over 3 weeks to schedule this appointment leaving a message on 5 occassions and nobody called me back until 2 days before my appointment with Pain Mgt thus scheduling the CT Myelogram for 2 weeks after my appointment. Typical VA. Shouldn't surprise you.)

Yesterday I got to see Pain Mgt. The meeting went well in my opinion. It is totally amazing the level and/or quality of service one receives at the VA once you get past the base level of care. I think there is gross disparity in how an individual is treated from primecare to specific care at this VA facility. Anyway, the meeting began with the doctor telling me how he had been made aware of my situation sometime back via my friends at Boston Scientific... Thanks Guys! He listened to me and we went on to discuss my situation in depth, including starting from the initial injury to be sure he had a good understanding of my situation and from where I am coming. It took nearly 4 hours to get through the whole thing but, Theresa said it's the first time she had ever seen me leave the VA without being totally pissed off and fuming. The doctor even went so far as to recognize that new technology and methods in MRI would allow him to see what's going on in my spinal column even with the hardware. He said that the invasive and painful CT Myelogram would not be necessary and therefore I don't have to go through with it. So we changed from the myelogram to the mri and away I go... Once he gets the films from the mri he will review them and we will decide whether to try epidural steroid injections or spinal cord stimulation; however, given the extent of structural damage and subsequent fusion, the age of the injury & the symptoms I am experiencing chances are that we'll go straight to the spinal cord stimulator. The doctor feels that I am an excellent candidate for said stimulator and thinks that we should have very good and beneficial results. In that I am very happy. Perhaps that is why I was not fuming on my way out the door as my level of hope began to rise again after years and years of suffering chronic pain. We shall see...

For now I'm going to "put on my sailing shoes" and go for a ride around the block...

Ride On!

Oh, BTW... keep your fingers crossed for us. The WWP has recently given the "go ahead" for the WWP Cycling Team, however, they are still kicking around a budget and how best to go forward with this project. As one of the Team riders I am very excited about this opportunity and what it will mean to have a chance to reach out to other wounded Veterans with an interest in cycling. If I can help them succeed then I have succeeded.

...and for those who don't know, just click on the title for each of my blog entries to listen in on the song that is running through my head as I create these entries.

Hope you like my pics...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Veterans Beware; The Story of BABA & The Benson's

I am writing this to let everybody know what just happened to my dear friends Jessica & Latseen Benson. It would be a travesty that such aberrant behavior would go on unnoticed. I hope Jessica & Latseen don't mind that I tell y'all their story but, knowing them I'm certain they would appreciate it if just to let other Veterans know to beware of those who approach them with promises of large gifts.

Sgt Latseen Benson was hit by an IED on 13NOV2005 while on foot patrol with the Pukin' Buzzards near Mosul, Iraq. The blast tore off his left leg below the knee and his right leg nearly to his hip. Latseen lost his legs that day as well as part of who he was before the war. They stabilized him in the field and sent him to Germany for repairs after which he was sent to Walter Reed in DC... and we all know what was going on at Reed right about that time. Given the environment and his pure sense of determination and drive to be independent, Latseen pushed hard to recover and convinced his doctors to let him go home after only 8 short months.

During this entire time Jessica never left his side. She provided him with love and encouragement, kind words and a kick in the ass when he needed it. She chased off the paperwork gremlins and kept Latseen focused on the task of rehabilitation. She made sure that everything stayed on track and never once complained about herself. Jessica remains at Latseen's side because she loves him. They are good together. They will always be stronger together than either one of them individually.

In 2008 the Benson's were approached by Bay Area Builders Association (BABA) in Houston, Texas, a 501C3 organization benefiting U.S. War Wounded Veterans, with opportunities like fishing trips (such as the one I wrote about here back in October 2009) with the overall grand promise of a brand-new, custom-built ADA home free of charge. The Benson's worked with BABA at events such as the Pasadena Rodeo selling items & raffle tickets to raise money for BABA. They worked tirelessly and never complained to me about the long hours. They only spoke of how much fun they had just being together.

In December of 2009 BABA, in conjunction with a local country radio station, held a concert in Houston at which they announced to the world that Jessica and Latseen had been selected by BABA to receive that afore mentioned home. Though they were working towards that end and hoping for it, it was a surprise to the Benson's and it really showed on the pictures from the event (Latseen never smiles). BABA posted this along with pictures on their website. Latseen was now their new poster child.

Once at home and away from all the excitement Jessica & Latseen got to looking at the plans for their new home. Upon inspection it turns out that it was not the ADA accessible custom home they were promised but rather one of the small cookie-cutter homes in Victory Lakes. While a very nice neighborhood, the floor plan for the home left no room for wheelchair access. A custom home with over-sized hallways, living space and restrooms is necessary for Latseen to get around in his own home and they brought this to the attention of BABA, who then promised to update the plans with said amenities. The Benson's then called the builder and were told that there was no way to change the plans without changing the entire home. BABA then pulled those home plans and told the Benson's that they would pick an entirely different home for them.

Several weeks went by and the Benson's never heard back from BABA. Then, by third party, they heard the very disturbing news that BABA had pulled their gift and were no longer going to give the Benson's a home. Upon investigation Jessica found out that BABA was indeed defaulting on their promise because they said, "they only support stable families." Apparently, a personal and private matter with the Benson's relationship was now the cause of BABA's default! Now, I'm not going to elaborate on that issue because I believe it is, and should remain a personal and private issue between Jessica and Latseen. Furthermore, it is not the issue at hand and I believe BABA is simply using the issue to cloud the water. If Jessica or Latseen want to share that part of the story they can tell you about it in the comments below, but, I urge you to not focus on that because it is not the issue. The issue is that a 501C3 supposedly dedicated to providing needed homes for our Troops just pulled the carpet out from under a really, really great family who deserved and earned the home they were promised, period.

There is no such thing as a "stable" military family, however, if you want to talk about strong and devoted and committed and host of other such adjectives to describe the military family you'd be on the right path. Such audacity and hubris! To think that these folks, who only one of which served in the military, can stand there and say that they are passing judgement upon such a great family is beyond me.

BABA's next move was to have a "hearing" at the behest of Jessica and Latseen. Well, what do they do but schedule the hearing for a date when Latseen will be out of the State on a previous engagement and, and, one which Jessica had advised BABA of on previous occasion! BABA would not reschedule the meeting so Jessica was left to stand by herself in front of these vultures who had clearly already made their decision. Theresa and I went to the meeting and sat outside just to give what support we could to Jessica. When Jessica came out of that room in tears I was completely enraged! I wanted to go in there and just beat the living crap out of those smug bastards.

At the end of the meeting BABA had told Jessica that they would contact her in a "few days" to let them know their final decision. Shortly afterward BABA removed the pictures and article about the Benson's from their website. It seems Latseen was no longer good enough to be their poster child. More than a month later one of the BABA board members called Jessica only to say that he was checking up on them but when the conversation turned to ethics he stated that that was not the conversation they should be having and terminated the call. To this day no BABA representative has notified, telephonically or otherwise, the Benson's on their final decision.

This is just plain wrong. The Benson's are really great folks and War Heroes to boot. I think that BABA should be investigated and that they should lose their 501C3 status. I hate to say it. I hate to see an organization set up to assist our War Wounded go under, but, not this one. You just don't treat people the way they did the Benson's. You just don't run an organizaton by the seat of your pants, there are rules to govern that organization. That is partly why you have to apply for 501C3 status.

Oh, and here's the kicker for you... Latseen is an Alaskan Native American! Anybody remember "Manifest Destiny?" Here we have an aboriginal who, out of a love for his country joins our Military to defend all of ours' Freedom and to help those who cannot help themselves attain their Freedom and what reward does he get... he gets his ass blown up, then sent to Walter Reed, then has to fight the VA for what he is rightly entitled to and then, then this is how he is treated by an organization that is supposed to be helping!?! WTF!?!

I will be sending a copy of this to my Congressmen and Representatives. Hopefully you will read this and do the same. Perhaps you can drop BABA a little note and express your feeling to them as well (just click on the title of this entry to get to their website). Thank you.

To Jessica and Latseen, I love you guys. Thank you for serving our Country. It means something to me and, while that isn't much, I know there are others out there who appreciate you as well. Hang in there and we'll all get through this together... One big happy, if not stable, military family.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Independence Fund Wallis Ride III

Just received an email from Steve over at the Independence Fund with a follow-up on the Wallis III Ride and wanted to pass along the Palo Verde Valley Times article he sent with his email. Veterans Group Ironwood was a key contributor allowing this ride to come off without a hitch. Many, many thanks to VGI for their hard work and dedication. I know that I appreciate their efforts and am fairly certain that the other Veterans who participated in the Wallis III Ride feel the same way. This is an amazing story of a Brotherhood that transcends all boundaries, including prison walls. ESSAYONS!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

XBox Anyone?

Ha! I was talking, well, texting my buddy Anthony yesterday about getting a new xbox just to play the new Modern Warfare 2. Word has it that it's "ultra-realistic" and a must play game. Now, I love first-person shooter games, such as America's Army, which was developed specifically for the U.S. Army, and played the heck out of our ps2 and old xbox but haven't played since moving to our new home and having the game consoles relocate upstairs for the kids. Just recently it was also brought to my attention that the old xbox bit the dust and the ps2 was carted off by my daughter to one of her friend's homes... my guess never to return... poor ps2. So, I'm getting really stoked about an xbox 360, a 40" lcd television (whoa! 1080p! hdmi! vyper game mode! oh, yeah!) and a few hours of shoot 'em up with my buddy on xbox 360 live. I get up this morning and, much to my elation, hear the Eagle screaming and figure "hmmm, I might run by Game Stop today & pick up a used system." I get online to check availability and price and check out some game trailers and I find this one on The Onion. Wow! This game really nails the "ultra-realistic" part for sure! Hey, Anthony... got a smoke? Oh, and I'd take the Shakira option... Wha ha!

Enjoy the Ride!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Wallis Independence Ride

This past weekend TC & I hooked up with Steve Danyluk and Independence Fund for the third annual Wallis Independence Ride in Wallis, Texas. I began preparing for the ride on Tuesday by cleaning & checking the trikes. Friday morning I got up and put together all of the gear we would need and spent the rest of the day pacing around excited about taking my wife with me on a bike ride. TC arrived home from work at the usual 1500hrs and while she freshened up and changed clothes, Mick & I loaded the trikes and gear. We departed our residence at 1535hrs and headed for the Galleria in Houston.

I made a quick stop at Specs for a little something for my buddy, Benson. Friday, 13NOV2009 was Benson's "Alive Day" anniversary; it was four years ago that Benson was blown up by an IED outside of Mosul, Iraq. After a brief cruise down the whiskey isle I settled on a nice bottle of Knob Creek small batch Kentucky Bourbon. I then made a pass by the humidor and picked up a box-pressed Java Estate Robusto Maduro; a fine cigar to which Benson & I have taken a liking.

TC & I then joined in with the mass of people who all happened to be going north on IH45 at the same time as we headed for the Embassy Suites at the Galleria. After a couple of bottlenecks we made it to the hotel around 1645... 15 minutes prior to the designated meet-up time. We got checked in and dropped off our bags then headed right back downstairs to catch the van to dinner. We enjoyed the ride to dinner where we sat behind our new friends Kate & Fran from where else but New York City! We had a real gas talking & cutting-up with Fran & Kate.

Our dinner was courtesy of Boudreaux's and Schlumberger Cycling Club, who organized the ride, and took place at the Schlumberger facilities. We enjoyed visiting as well as slide shows and presentations by and for all the folks who made the ride possible, including Veterans Group Ironwood who provided us with $10k. The amazing thing about this donation is where the money came from and how it was raised. Veterans Group Ironwood is a collection of Veterans who are incarcerated in the Ironwood Prison, California Penal System. They raised the money by selling pizza in their chow hall and by recycling cans and bottles. Amazing! These guys raised that kind of money from inside prison... imagine how much could be raised outside of those walls. Thanks guys! Best of Luck to you all.

At dinner I also got to hook up with my friend Charlie again. I hadn't seen Charlie since Soldier Ride this past March. Charlie is still in the Army and serving at Ft. Benning, Georgia even though he has a major TBI and significant damage to his arm and hand after being blown up by an IED in Iraq. It was nice to visit with Charlie and I wish him all the best.

After our nice dinner we headed back to the hotel where we enjoyed a nightcap and some more visiting before we tottered off to bed around 2200hrs. The room was comfortable and it wasn't long before I was sawing logs.

My alarm deployed its irritating little beep at 0445hrs. We donned our bike clothes, packed & headed downstairs to grab some breakfast and check out. Because of the time our breakfast was a brown bag containing the bike riders ever-present banana, a muffin, a granola bar & a juice. Much like eating MRE's in the field, everybody sat around trading various pieces until they had the flavor they liked and then began eating. Unfortunately for coffee drinkers there was no fresh coffee out at 0530hrs on a Saturday morning. Typical of Military folks, a couple of trusted and industrious individuals set off to resolve this issue and quickly returned from the employee break room with steaming cups of fresh coffee.

We then loaded up and drove the 44 miles over to the Knights of Columbus hall in Wallis where we unloaded & fitted bikes. All of the Veterans then lined up with the Marine Corps Color Guard and some sponsors for a few pictures. We then lined up for the National Anthem and the ride start. There were about 800 riders total. The weather was perfect for a bike ride too. It was about 65 degrees with a light breeze and clear skies. Since we hadn't been riding very much lately, TC, Latseen, Jessica & I decided that we would ride the short route, 23 miles, and call it a day. TC & Jessica decided that they would at least ride to the first banana!

We found the first banana about 5.5 miles down the road where we made the first rest stop without a hitch. The Boy Scouts had the rest stop manned and were serving some really good gatorade as compared to the usually watered down stuff. We topped off our bottles & headed down the road. It was really fun riding along and talking with folks. There were folks of all abilities and skills enjoying the ride and showing their support for our Country's Veterans. It was a good feeling to see such an outpouring of support. I am glad that we have turned a page from the aberrant way in which our Country welcomed home Its Vietnam Veterans. I looked around at my fellow Veterans and could immediately see that they too were very much enjoying the ride and the day... made that much better by the many cheers, thumbs up, hand shakes and back pats. I am honored to share the company of such great men and women as those who serve(d) our Great Country.

Latseen had seemed a little disappointed that we were riding the 23-mile route when there were longer routes available for a challenge. Still, I had agreed with TC to ride the 23 and I wasn't going to ride on without her. At the point where the short route peeled off Benson was about a quarter of a mile ahead of me and, after a little half-hearted partial turn, he continued down the road of the 42-mile route. Jessica, TC & I took a right and headed on down the road content to be riding the 23 miler. Poor Jessica hadn't ridden since the BPms150 in April and she was riding a standard framed bike... she didn't complain a bit but when I asked her she said she was experiencing pain in her wrist, left foot and her butt. I'm really glad that she came out to ride though as it's always more fun with more people, especially those you like! I also have to tell you how proud I am of my beautiful wife. She is truly my everything. I don't know where I would be without her. She jumped on her new Catrike Expedition and peddled like a pro! She rode better than I have ever seen her previously ride. She visited with folks and her smile was infectious.

The short route simply turned back around the block so-to-say and ended up back at the same rest stop. We wheeled in and took another short break. After some more of that delicious gatorade we started to head back down the road. Thinking I was behind them, Jessica & TC took off for the finish line. I had stopped to talk to some folks who were asking about my trike when one of the fellas said, "you better get going. looks like your wife has done left without you." I looked up to see TC's little orange flag flapping along about a half of a mile down the road. Here's how I know TC was riding so well. After 20 miles she was cooking right along and I was having a hard time closing the gap... even on a bridge! Good job, Honey! It took me several miles to finally catch her. I think it was the chip-seal in the construction area that slowed her down enough for me.

We rolled across the finish line right behind Jessica to cheers and posters. It was really nice. Thank you for all of the support! TC & I loaded up the trikes and went to check on Jessica. Turns out that Latseen had the keys for their truck with him so she would have to wait for him to finish the 42-mile route before being able to load her bike and change clothes. Meanwhile, we went inside and ate a nice lunch courtesy of the Knights of Columbus, along with some live music. It was a nice way to wind down and visit for a while. We then headed outside and waited for Latseen. When he came in we joined the folks cheering! We got him loaded up and then went back inside so he could eat some lunch.

That wrapped up our day and, after well wishes, we all headed for home. TC & I took the scenic route home and after having gotten up at oh-dark-thirty we went straight for a nap!

On Sunday, "Love Your Spouse Day", we watched a really bad scifi show on t.v. then went for lunch at McAlister's. After lunch we went to the theater and saw "Fourth Kind." It was a really weird show. Then we went for a drive along the shoreline of Galveston Bay stopping at several parks to just sit and watch. After discovering that we would have no children to worry about for the evening we stopped by What A Burger and then went home. Ending the day by watching the Colts upset the Patriots in a last minute drive on Sunday Night Football.

In all, it was an awesome weekend!

Ride On!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Outdoors Weekend Courtesy of BABA

First off... I hope you had a GREAT birthday weekend, Benson! Happy 30th! Here's to many more!

Benson invited me to join him for a weekend at Champion Ranch in Centerville, TX where we enjoyed fishing, shooting clays, eating some good cowboy cooking and visiting. The outing was courtesy of the Bay Area Builder's Association (BABA) and the good folks at the Champion Ranch. I had a really great time and got to meet some great folks and some more Heroes from the GWOT.

We left Houston around noon on Friday after stopping by Spec's to stock the cooler and grab a couple of cigars. Traffic was a little thicker than usual as folks headed north to Dallas for the Texas-Oklahoma football game. I would guess three of five cars that we passed had some burnt orange displayed with pride. Benson had no problem finding the gate to the ranch and, luckily, while we were contemplating which roadway to take to the bunkhouse a ranch hand pulled in behind us and we just followed him. The ranch is very beautiful at around 6000 acres with about 3500 head of brangus cattle, some horses and even a few bison.

We met the owners and dropped our gear in the bunkhouse. After visiting for a little bit we drove over to the 70-acre lake where we splashed the 5 boats, loaded up and headed out for a few hours of fishing. Benson & I loaded up with Captain Pat McLennan of Diamond Guide Services. It was a gorgeous evening and we were on the fish at our first stop. The Florida strain black bass were hitting like a middle line backer on a blindside quarterback! Just after sunset we landed the boat and headed back to the bunkhouse for a little brisket and some beans with jalapeƱos.

After dinner the folks from BABA had a little surprise for the Veterans and presented them with a new fishing rod and reel along with a tackle box stuffed plum full of tackle and gear. The rods were brand new and unavailable to the public. They were carbon blanks wrapped with mossy oak camouflage... I guess so you can sneak up on the fish ;0) Jokes aside, the rods were really trick or, tight as they say nowadays, and the reels were very nice shimano bait casters. As I was a guest of Benson's, they didn't know that I was also a Disabled Veteran, however, within a few minutes they had wrangled up a brand new abu garcia black max rod and shimano bait caster for me as well! It was a totally awesome show of courtesy and respect that I very much appreciated. Like I said, these are some really great guys!

I then sat down to visit with Jeff Horny and his cameraman, JD, who are making a documentary about the healthcare Veterans receive from the VA. The documentary is to garner firsthand experiences from Veterans and hopefully demonstrate the need for the VA to change the way it does business. I did an interview on camera where I told a short version of my previous blog. I hope I was able to get my thoughts and feelings across in a manner that will help bring some much needed change to VA Healthcare. During the interview the guys were shooting clays and target shooting with pistols so you can hear the reports in the background... pretty cool.

It was nearly 0100hrs when I ambled off to bed. I had a hard time getting to sleep partly because of the new environment and partly because my back and legs hurt. My legs were doing this weird cramp-then-jump thing that made it impossible to fall asleep; just about the time I would start to nod off my legs would either cramp or they would twitch violently causing me to wake. I lay there tossing and turning until 0215hrs when I finally got sick of it and got up, took a pain killer, went to the restroom, got some water and lay back down. It was thirty minutes or so until the pain killer kicked in and I was able to doze off. About 0430 the ranch folks started stirring and getting coffee and breakfast started. I felt like I had just been run over by a deuce & a half but managed to drag my sorry butt out of the rack, dress and head for the cooler to get a Mt. Dew.

We scarfed down some breakfast tacos and headed for the boat well before sun up. It was cool and clear in the morning with no wind. Out on the boat it was quiet and calm with "smoke" rising from the water. Once again we were on the fish in nothing flat. They were hitting on everything we through out there, including rattle traps, worms and topwaters. Then sun crept over the trees and began to warm our necks. Soon we were shedding our sweaters and enjoying another tremendous day. We hauled in fish pretty regular until about 0930hrs when it just turned off like somebody through a switch. We worked it until noon and then headed back to the bunkhouse for some lunch and to watch the UT-OU game. The late night and early morning combination led to some really tired guys about 1300hrs after we had gotten some open-fire-cooked sausage and beans in us (yeah, more beans). I was sitting in a chair with the sun on my back and my head started bobbing around like one of those little dolls. I looked across the table & Benson had his head resting in his hand with his eyes shut tight. They say great minds think alike and no sooner did I stand up to head for my rack than Benson sat up, wheeled around and announced he was going to take a nap. I laid in my rack and listened to the ball game and snoozed on and off.

About 1600hrs we all got a little more motivated and headed back to the boats. It was a slow start but soon enough we started catching fish again. Around 1800hrs we headed for the dock where we relieved the live well of its cargo of thirty-seven largemouth bass ranging from one and one-half to three and one-half pounds each. The other boats came in with their catches and Cpts Pat & Jesse shared cleaning detail while Benson & I puttered out to the cove and fished a while longer. We caught another seven or eight fish while we were waiting but released them all. We got back to the bunkhouse about 1900hrs where the fish were fried up just right along with some shrimp and served with hush puppies, jalapeƱos and fried potatoes.

It was an early night on Saturday and I headed for the rack about 2130hrs. I was able to get some good sleep in amongst the stiff competition for snoring champion of the ranch. It also sounded a bit like Mel Brooks "Blazing Saddles" after everybody had eaten all those beans!

Sunday morning came on a little slower as we visited and packed our gear. I even managed to get a shower and put on a clean shirt. After a healthy dose of my secret orange juice-mt dew mix for breakfast I felt like a brand new man and ready for some fishing. We headed out on the water around 0830hrs and fished until 1030hrs. Again the fishing was slow but we managed to all pull in a couple of fish. Benson even had some luck pitching a topwater and it was a blast watching those bass come up and hit that thing.

After good-byes and well-wishes we all went our separate directions. Benson and I stopped by Woody's for some fuel and I picked up some of their famous beef jerky. The ride home took about a third less time and, actually, seemed to go too fast as I enjoyed visiting with Benson. It was a great weekend. I really enjoyed myself and feel glad that I was able to go. Thanks a bunch to BABA and the folks from Champion Ranch. Enjoy the pics below.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Welcome Home, Johnny

I remember, with somewhat sporadic clarity, my first visit to a VA Medical Center. I guess it's nearly twenty years ago now. I've never told this story to anyone; not my wife, not a friend... nobody. I'm telling it here because I have very mixed feelings about the above article and the program that it describes. Not being a Combat Veteran, I've always harbored a bit of uneasiness about my VA benefits. Deep down inside I've always felt like I didn't deserve them... even though I was injured "in line of duty" it just didn't sit right with me. Maybe with the passage of time I have less of an issue with this but, sometimes I catch myself thinking about it.

I first heard about some sort of new "wing" at the VA here in Houston from a friend's wife. She said it had been the first time in nearly four years that her husband had been to the VA without coming home pissed off. Apparently, the VA opened a new "wing" for OIF/OEF Veterans. It was newly remodeled with carpet, paint and furnishings, the works. From sign in, my friend never waited more than five minutes before the next appointment and everybody was friendly and courteous... down right professional even. My first reaction was one of surprise and near disbelief. This feeling was followed by one of relief that maybe, finally, some change was coming to the VA Healthcare system, but, this feeling was quickly subdued by one not unlike that of being punched in the guts. You see, it dawned on me that the change didn't include ALL Veterans, just the ones from our most recent conflicts thus leaving the rest of us sitting on the sideline yet again.

I thought about it for a few days and the more I thought about it the more upset I got. I mean I was up most of the night kickin this around in my head trying to make it right but, I just seem to be having a really hard time with it. I went to the trusty old internet and "googled" new VA programs and sure enough found the above article on several different websites, which I figured was two-fold in that it let OIF/OEF Veterans know about the program and also allowed the VA to "toot its own horn" since that is where the story originated. The one difference I saw was that the VA is saying that it is strictly a "welcome" program while I was under the impression that it was a complete healthcare program separate from what is available to all other Veterans. Either way I found some very telling statements in the VA's cover story and am still chewing on this one. That's why I thought I would share my story with you and, maybe, you can help me work through this one.

So... I remember that it was a very cold but very clear day in North Central Illinois. The roads were clear and dry with rings of salt surrounding all the imperfections in the pavement. The snow covered lawns and cars and was piled up along the streets. It was hard and crunchy, not good snowball-making-snow but, it was clean and white and not dirty gray-brown from having been around a while. I'm not certain of the reason why I was going to the VA but I was going to the VA Medical Center in Chicago, which is located roughly 100 miles East of the City of Aurora where we were living and I remember leaving fairly early to make the long drive.

Aurora is actually a fairly good sized city with, at the time, two public high schools and a number of industrial businesses such as Barber Greene, where my brother started working as a machinist after he graduated high school, Caterpillar, All-Steel and the foundry where my dad received slag burns on his arms while working his way through college. Of course, Barber Greene closed down and my brother went to work for Aurora Pump making pumps for the Navy and other industrial applications. Caterpillar closed up its doors and moved to Mexico. The foundry closed up because it simply couldn't produce steel products as cheaply as they were in China (and I mean cheaply in both senses of the word). Still, I digress only to give you an idea that Aurora was a plenty big enough city for its own Va Medical Center if not at least an outpatient clinic.

Some things never change. I found a parking spot way out in the "back forty" and hopped on a little golf cart limo that deposited me by the main entrance. I remember going through a maze of corridors to find the office/waiting area where I was to report. The room was relatively small with three windows high upon an outside wall. The blue indoor-outdoor carpet looks fairly new as do the chairs lined up around the room. There was a large fake plant smashed into the corner under the wall-mounted television. It looked out of place and I figure it was there to keep people from banging their heads on the television that somebody mounted too low for such a room. There was a piece of paper taped to the t.v. screen informing everybody that the television did not work so it must have been there strictly to provide a good surface for banging one's head. The counter reminded me of a drive-thru bank as it had a glass window with the little stainless steel louvers that you are to speak through and a push-me-pull-me drawer in which I deposited my I.D. as directed by the sign posted on the glass. The initial conversation went something like:

Me: Good Morning!
Lady: ...
Drawer closes then reopens and I find a packet of papers stuck to a clip board that has a pen chained to it. My I.D. is not in the drawer.
Me: Excuse me? Can I get my I.D. please?
Lady: ...
Lady: ...garble garble garble I.D. garble garble garble garble clip board garble garble...
I quickly translate this into "you'll get your I.D. back when you return my clip board." I turned around and everybody, and I mean everybody, in the room quickly looked down at whatever archaic publication they happen to have found laying on their seat when they got there. I guess I was the entertainment for the morning.

I found a chair near the corner opposite the t.v. and began looking over the papers I was to fill out. Remember, this was in a day and time when cellular telephones weren't around and all I had with me was my I.D. card. I couldn't call up my wife or my parents and ask for answers. There were blanks requesting information I had know idea how to complete but I did know that I did NOT want to stand in front of the garbling lady shouting out all of my business for the entire room's occupants like some kind of soap opera. I did the best I could and figured I would just wing it. On one form I stated I had no children because I couldn't remember their Social Security Numbers and the Government is really funny about having every single blank filled in. I guess I was figuring that it would be easier to add them later than to fight with somebody about it that day. I remember the packet being exceptionally lengthy at nearly one quarter inch thick. It took me well over an hour to complete and I remember feeling like I was taking the SAT rather than simply requesting healthcare that I had earned. I couldn't figure out why I had to explain all of this if the U.S. Army already had all of this on file... didn't they pass along the information with the person they were transferring? On top of all this, as I stated earlier, I had a very loud voice somewhere in my head telling me that I didn't deserve to be getting any of this any way. I wasn't shot or blown up. It wasn't an enemy that caused this but rather the poor driving skills of my very own Squad Leader. And it was frickin hot in that room. Being winter I had dressed accordingly. Unfortunately, there was no need for a jacket or sweater in the waiting area. In fact, I think it was too warm for anything above bermuda shorts and flip flops.

So, I'm sitting by myself in a room one hundred miles from my home fidgeting around in my chair because my back hurts and my legs feel like they have an electric current running through them; I'm sweating up a storm, both figuratively because of the paperwork and my disbelief that I should even be there, and, literally because of the temperature in the room; and I have absolutely zero ideas about being anywhere else because being a Soldier was everything I had ever wanted to be. I was around twenty years old and had a whole life ahead of me that I really didn't want. I was hurt. I was scared. I was lonely. But I'll be damned if I was going to show it or request some kind of special treatment above what everybody else in the room was getting.

Sometime during my task of complete the requisite VA forms along with other forms that, apparently, somebody felt gathered information also necessary to the process that was not contained in any of the VA forms, or at least kept applicants busy for a little while longer so they didn't have to be dealt with in any expedient manner, a large black lady wheeled in a Trooper in a wheelchair and parked him in the corner to my right. She said nothing to him or anybody behind the glass. She simply wheeled him in, put him in the corner out of the passageway and applied the wheel brakes. She then turned and strolled out of the room like it was nobodies business. And here is where completing the paperwork seemed to take a backseat to more pressing thoughts about my place in life now and in the future. Perhaps it is also why it took me so long to complete the wretched exercise in futility.

I tried my best not to stare. I even questioned myself if it was OK to simply look and look away. I honestly felt like crap because I was going to be able to get up and walk out of that place and he wouldn't. You see, he was missing his right arm and right ear. The right side of his head was terribly scarred from burns and his right eye barely peeped through a slit in the scar tissue. His legs were nothing but little sticks of flesh-wrapped bones. But most of all I could not break away from the fact that he was also missing his bottom jaw. They had put a surgical mask over his gaping hole that used to be a mouth. It wrapped around his head, over his left ear and across where his right ear once was and under his nose. The bottom strings dangled from the mask and it just hung there like a curtain but you could see around the sides of it. He just sat there expressionless. Emotionless. He just sat there in that wheelchair and made gurgling sounds and stared across the room at something that wasn't there. I wanted to cry for this guy. I wanted to stand up and scream for him. I couldn't tell his age. He had only a little tuft of hair on the back left of his head that was mostly gray. His eyes were a piercing blue. I never got his name.

I sat there trying my best to complete that frickin paperwork all the while thinking about this pour soul, my Brother, who just sat there in that wheelchair. Nobody came to check on him. Nobody asked if he needed anything. He just sat there. When I went to return the lady's clip board along with the paperwork I mentioned that he was there and that nobody had checked on him and that it had been roughly two hours. The lady garbled something in return though I don't know if it pertained to me or him or whether or not the Bears would go to the playoffs. She had zero expression on her face and simply pushed the drawer back revealing my I.D. card laying there face up atop a form for the doctor to fill out. Geeze! Even their own doctors had to fill out forms!

I returned to my seat but I couldn't stop worrying about this guy. After fifteen or twenty minutes, when nobody returned to check on him, even after my request, I went over and sat next to him. I had no frickin idea what the hell I was doing I just knew that I would want somebody to check on me. I introduced myself. I asked if he needed anything... if he was comfortable. I got no response. He rolled his eyes looking in my direction but made no apparent move to signal anything. I asked him if it was OK if I sat next to him for a while and took the chair to his left. I didn't say anything for a while as I had no idea what to say. Finally I just started talking about the Bears, about the playoffs, about the weather and so on. This went on for nearly four hours until they finally called my name. I told him to take care and that I would send someone to check on him. When I went to the door to meet the nurse who had called my name I informed her of his status having been sitting there for four hours with nobody checking on him. The nurse acknowledged me, looked around the corner in the direction of the guy in the wheelchair then turned back to me and simply replied that somebody was taking care of him and to follow her... that was either a complete and utter lie or the care they were providing him was completely and utterly horrible... or, both. Who the fuck would park somebody like this in a corner somewhere for four fuckin' hours without checking on them? I still feel like standing up and screaming for this guy and he's probably long dead.

I went back to meet the doctor. He was a younger fellow, thin and tall with glasses. All I can remember of our conversation is him telling me that my injury was debilitative and that eventually I would be confined to a wheelchair and to enjoy doing what I can now... Wow! That'll really cheer you up, eh? All I kept thinking was when would I be wheeled into a corner and forgotten. He ordered an x-ray and told me to simply drop the paper he had to fill out at the desk where I came in and then go to x-ray. After x-ray released me I was free to go. Four hours of waiting for a fifteen minute face-to-face just to be told I'm gonna end up in a wheelchair. Woo Hoo! What a day!

After a few wrong turns I managed to re-locate the waiting area and, much to my relief, found the guy in the wheelchair was no longer their. I dropped the paper in the drawer and asked where the x-ray lab was located. Ah, you guessed it! I was met with an expressionless response of garble garble garble... Out of shear politeness I stood there thinking about the guy in the wheelchair and somewhat listening to the garbling of the lady behind the glass. I doubt she was giving me the winning lottery numbers and perhaps there would be somebody in the hall I could ask or, better yet, a facilities layout map hanging somewhere. When she finished garbling I nodded, turned on my heel and headed out the door.

In the main hall I asked somebody where x-ray was located and they pointed and simply stated, "other end." It turns out that the VA Medical Facility in Chicago was built upon an old horse racing track. The main hallways serving the facility are nearly a mile long. The facility itself reminded me of a ship's magazine with large track rails hanging from the ceiling and huge steel doors with large wheeled door mechanisms. It had that lovely hospital aroma but that aroma didn't quite seem to cover up something else... some other smell that was much worse. I tried not to think about it and just kept walking. The hallways were packed with people, patients, personnel and other. There were golf cart limos cruising up and down the halls. My back and legs were hurting tremendously so I figured I would hop on one and catch a lift to the opposite end of the facility where x-ray was supposed to be located. When I tried to load up the guy driving said I wasn't allowed and that the carts were for invalids only but before I could protest he had already taken off. So, once again I commenced walking. Near halfway down the hall I saw two big male nurses wrestling with a skinny black patient. They took him to the ground and then lifted him back up again. At that point I saw some smoke and smelled a cigarette. As I got a little closer I could hear them arguing with the patient that he could not smoke inside the hospital and he kept replying that it was too cold outside and that they wouldn't give him a jacket.

Somehow I made it to x-ray where I found that the line was nearly equal to the one in the waiting room where I had arrived early in the morning. Of course, everybody was currently out to lunch and we all had to either lose our place in line to go have lunch or simply go without. I went without lunch. The x-ray line went a little faster as it simply involved a process and there was no need for human interaction... in other words, they simply called your name, handed you a printed paper with the doctor's order on it, had you strip down and put on a gown and then you went and stood back in another line along a wall with all your stuff hanging out. You shuffled up until it was your turn, all the while standing. We were being treated like we were still in the Army. My back was getting ready to strangle me; it hurt really, really bad. When it was my turn the x-ray tech simply grabbed the order from my hand told me to follow him into the room and get up on the table. Now it was freezing cold and the metal table stuck to my ass. At this point comfort wasn't even in the frickin picture. I figured we'd just get this over real quick like and I would haul ass. We took only two x-rays, one from the front and one from the side. Afterward I got re-dressed and headed for the nearest door where I could go out to smoke a cigarette.

While I was having a smoke and contemplating the location of my car one of those gulf cart limmo guys came by and asked if he could bum a smoke from me. I told him I'd give him the whole damned pack if he'd just give me a lift to my car, which happened to be on the opposite side of the facility. He smiled, I jumped on the cart and away we went. When we got to my car I even gave him the frickin lighter! A few blocks away from the facility I happened past a pub that had a very attractive Budweiser sign hanging over the sidewalk. I found a parking place not far away and found my way to the bar. I bought a pack of smokes, a Bud and a shot of Jim Beam. I don't remember driving home or what time I got there.

To this day I think about the guy in the wheelchair and I hope that the brief company we shared somehow made his day a little better. Like I said, some things never change. Up to last week I still went to the VA for my healthcare and I still had to wait in incredibly long lines for some incompetent fool calling himself a doctor who I barely understood to tell me absolutely nothing. I regularly witness Veterans sitting along hallways or in corners of waiting areas with that same thousand-meter stare. You may think I'm full of shit. You may think that that happened twenty years ago and things are different now. Well, I can assure you that it's business as usual at the VA and here's and example:

I went to my VA doctor named Patel for four months complaining about my ankle. I told him over and over the symptoms and he told me repeatedly that it was an "acute high sprain" and to apply R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). Finally, with the ms150 looming around the corner, I called Fondren Orthopedic Clinic in Webster and made an appointment with Doctor Barry Boone, who also happened to treat my son's and daughter's ankle fractures. I was in the waiting room perhaps ten minutes and then brought back to see the doctor. I explained the symptoms and he said it sounded like a torn peroneal tendon. I took off my shoe & sock and he put his thumb right smack on the spot first try and moved my foot up & down stating sure enough there was a tear in the tendon. He said we should also take an MRI to rule out any other soft tissue damage and then it would require surgery to fix. The MRI actually showed two tears and I scheduled the surgery for two weeks later. In less time than it took me to simply complain to the VA doctor the problem had been identified, double-checked, resolved and rehabilitated.

Ah, how about this one:

I had been seen at VA Medical Centers in Chicago, IL, El Paso, TX, Austin, TX and Temple, TX over a period of nearly15 years before relocating to the Houston area. I went to the Houston facility to make an appointment. They told me that I had to APPLY for benefits! I explained to them the situation being that I had only relocated and was already in the VA system. After over a year of arguing with them on this point I finally had to write a letter to my Congressman advising him of the situation and requesting his assistance. I took the letter to the XO at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers where I was working and, in turn, he took it to the Colonel who personally hand delivered the letter to the Congressman for me. Within two weeks I received notice from VA Medical Center Houston of an appointment for me. WOW! Some kind of Welcoming Program that was!

I said, "up to last week" because, henceforth, and much like many, many other Veterans who have received similar receptions from the VA, I will never set foot in another VA Medical Center as a patient again. I'm still upset about this new program they have developed. On one hand I don't want to make a fuss because I think our Troops should be given the best frickin healthcare possible because they've earned it. I also think that change has to start somewhere. On the other hand, we all served and we all deserve better healthcare. If you read the article closely you can understand that the VA is acknowledging that they are providing sub-par healthcare for Veterans. There may be a bunch of reasons for segregating the OIF/OEF Troops but modern warfare still results in the same type injuries. In WWI it was "Shell Shock" while in WWII, Korea and Vietnam it was "Combat Fatigue." After Desert Storm our Veterans had no problem verbalizing their symptoms, which eventually were labeled "Gulf War Syndrome." It took the VA over five years to acknowledge these symptoms and label it "in line of duty." Now we have "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder", or, PTSD. We, as a Country, have been treating War Wounded for over 233 years... you think that maybe we would have gotten it right by now! Think about it.

One other point I want to make is this, what's going to happen when we pull out of Iraq and beat the crap out of the Taliban in Afghanistan? Do you think the VA will continue with the "Welcome Center" and its new way of doing business or do you think they'll go back to the "business as usual program" for all Veterans? How do you think the Troops will feel once they get through that welcome door and all of the sudden find themselves waiting in a corner for hours on end? Yeah, some Welcome Home, Johnny that'll be, huh?