Monday, May 26, 2014
THANKS FOR YOUR SERVICE & BEING EXPENDABLE
YEARS after I first returned from Iraq and started having thoughts and visions of killing myself, I’d call the Department of Veterans Affairs. They always put me on hold.
First, an automated message would greet me to let me know there was an unusually long wait because of the large number of incoming calls. Then a recorded message played on a constant loop: “Welcome to the Department of Veterans Affairs ... The V.A. is here to serve you ... If this is a mental health emergency or you are thinking about committing suicide, please hang up and call 911 ... If you are having thoughts of hurting others or want to talk to a mental health professional hang up and dial the Veterans Crisis Line ... ”
I wasn’t about to pull the trigger just then, I just wanted help, so I held on. The wait was long — sometimes 45 minutes to an hour — at which point someone would pick up and either put me on hold again or transfer me over to someone else to schedule an appointment to seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. In my experience, the wait for an appointment was typically eight to 10 weeks, but sometimes as long as three to four months.
Keep this in mind: If I’m calling the V.A., it’s because I’m in really bad shape. But when I’d tell them I really needed to see somebody ASAP, sooner than that, they’d always tell me the same exact thing: “Sorry. But that’s the earliest we can see you.” I’ve since learned that when things are really bad, it’s better to just show up at the V.A. emergency room.
Before, I thought it was a miracle that I survived the Iraq war. Now I’m thinking it’s a miracle I’m still alive after dealing with the V.A. for so long.
The V.A. motto was taken from Abraham Lincoln’s second presidential Inaugural Address, and can be seen etched on a huge metal plaque outside the Washington headquarters: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” Since my father is a retired lieutenant colonel — a highly decorated Vietnam veteran — I’ve been walking by this quote for as long as I can remember.
I recall one day when I was about 7 years old and got sick, my father drove me to the V.A. hospital near Oakland, Calif. When the doctor asked me how much pain I was in on a scale of one to 10, I honestly told him it was about a six or a seven. In the waiting room lobby my father scolded me. He said that no matter what, I should always tell the doctor that my pain was at least a 10, even a 12, otherwise we’d be waiting around in the lobby all day to be seen. Which was exactly what happened. Same as it ever was.
I enrolled in the V.A. health care system in 2004, soon after a year of service in Iraq. I’ve been to countless V.A. hospitals since, and they’re all the same. If you want to know what the price of freedom looks like, go to a V.A. waiting room — wheelchairs, missing limbs, walking wounded, you get all of the above. One day not long ago, while waiting for my PTSD medication, I struck up a conversation with a Vietnam veteran, who told me the message he’d gotten from his treatment at the V.A., and his country, was not “Thank you for serving,” but “Thank you for being expendable.”
I agreed with him. Soldiers are expendable in war, and veterans are expendable and forgotten about when they return. That’s just the way it is. This recent V.A. “scandal” over prolonged wait time for veteran care doesn’t surprise me one bit. Politicians and many hawkish Americans are quick to send our sons and daughters to go off to fight in wars on foreign soil, but reluctant to pay the cost.
Once, nearly homeless and plagued with thoughts of jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, I showed up at a V.A. hospital and told them I was in bad shape and needed some help. I was holding a coffee cup. The doctor asked me how much coffee I drank in an average day. I told her; she then advised me to cut down to one cup a day. When I asked if she could possibly prescribe any medication to go with that one cup a day, she refused. “We used to prescribe drugs all the time,” she explained. “OxyContin, Percocet, Dolophine, Methadose, Vicodin, Xodol, hydrocodone.” But veterans were getting addicted, she said, even dying, from overprescription so doctors had been told to cut back on prescribing. Go down to one cup of coffee day, she told me again, and see how you feel.
I think this recent scandal may be the best thing ever to happen to our veterans and hope some change will take place because of it. God knows it’d be nice for veterans to just call or walk into a V.A. hospital and see somebody and be taken care of the same day. I don’t think that’d be asking a lot. There might be a lot more of us alive today if that was the case. Sadly, it’s not. Even on Memorial Day, the wait at the V.A. goes on.
Same as it ever was.