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"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

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: ...
Me: EXCUSE ME!?! CAN I PLEASE GET MY I.D. CARD BACK!?!
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?

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