Posts Tagged ‘VA’

Somebody on CNN this morning asked if the situation at VA hospitals – waiting months for care and possibly being put on a secret waiting list – is a recent   development, almostCollage2 a singular incident, or if this is a systematic problem.

Oh, it’s more than systematic.  It’s endemic.  It’s embedded in the VA culture. Veterans don’t just wait months for care – they often wait years – and this has been the situation since at least Viet Nam, if not before.

Back in 2000, I started getting involved with the protests against the experimental, highly reactive, and sometimes deadly anthrax vaccine that was being forced on troops deployed to certain areas.  If they didn’t take this experimental drug they could – and usually did – receive a dishonorable discharge.  If they took the vaccine, and thousands upon thousands did, they might develop tumors and cysts, severe bone and joint pain, terrible, ongoing migraines, partial loss of vision or hearing, vertigo, grand mal seizures, sudden blood pressure spikes and drops; the women might hemorrhage and find themselves unable to bear children; the men might lose testosterone permanently.  The list is too long to repeat here.

And that would just be the beginning.  Trying to get medical-boarded out of the service with a reasonable disability rating would always be the first major bureaucratic hurdle.  In those days, the military refused to admit any connection between the vaccine and a service member’s subsequent disability; certainly military doctors didn’t understand or recognize the symptoms at the time. Too often, service members were told that their symptoms – many of which were invisible to an observer – were all in their head; they were told they had mental problems, or were depressed.  After going through months, and sometimes years, of not being believed about their illnesses, of trying to get through each day in terrible pain, I always thought it was perfectly natural for them to become depressed… that was a result of how they were treated, not a cause of their symptoms.

Once out of the service, getting treated by the VA was the next major hurdle.  The common rating for disability – if a person didn’t get in and fight it – was 10 percent.  Ten percent!!!  Almost nothing – for someone who could no longer carry out his military duties.  And the waiting period for treatment was usually two years.   — And that was if a service member lived close enough to a VA hospital to get the care needed. 

What happened in the meantime?  These disabled service members were not getting the treatment they needed, or were paying civilian doctors out of their own pockets trying to find answers.  Too often, they were unable to work.  They lost their jobs – they lost their cars – they lost their homes – and their marriages very often broke apart under the strain.  Not a few of them literally went to live in the woods, homeless and alone, and rejected by – us.  Those they serve.

What I’d like to know, Congress is this: why did it take you so damn long to notice?  Where have you been?  You say you support our troops, but after you issued the 1994 Rockefeller Report calling on the military to stop its medical experimentation on our service members – and included the anthrax vaccine in that last – you did nothing to enforce it.  We’re supposed to have civilian oversight of the military in this country, but those civilians we elect to the highest offices in the land do not seem to have spines – or eyes and ears.

So it takes a scandal like a secret list causing veterans to die while they wait before this suddenly becomes an issue.  I’ve got news for you, media people and Congress and Americans: our veterans have been dying for a long, long time waiting for the right care from the VA.  To make matters worse, some of those deaths are suicides – because nobody believed, or helped search for the right treatments.  It’s better to wait for a whole generation to die, we get that.  That’s why it’s only been in the last few years that Agent Orange was recognized as the presumptive cause of severe medical problems for the troops (http://www.banderasnews.com/1004/vl-davidlord05.htm).  Delay payment and responsibility for as long as humanly possible, then say, “Whoops.  We were wrong.”

My cynicism is hard-earned; most of it comes from the veterans themselves.  These problems didn’t just start; this is not a sudden, new development.  It’s been going on for years.  To this day, when veterans write in to us at www.mvrd.org,  we have to counsel them on how to work with, and sometimes fight with, the VA to get the disability ratings and the treatment they need.

Kick out Secretary of Veterans Affairs Shinseki? Accept Dr. Petzel’s resignation? Band-aid measures; these do nothing to address the real problems.  They inherited this mess, they didn’t cause it. The real problems have a lot more to do with how we proudly send our sons and daughters off to war, encouraging them to give all for their country – but don’t want to pay for it when they come back injured, debilitated, depressed, and permanently changed.  It’s part of the cost of war – the fact that our men and women come back disabled, sometimes with illnesses that are not visible.  It’s part of the deal, yet we seem to refuse to step up to the plate in a timely, caring manner. Meanwhile, too many veterans languish in their homes or homeless shelters – or in the woods – unable to continue to fight.


We think we support our troops and veterans in this country.  Not by half; not by half.


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Collage2Got in last night from a wonderful week in San Diego at the PRSA International Conference, feeling saturated with new information, new friends, reunions with old friends, and thoughts about my last conference as a sitting member of the board of directors.  I rotate off the board in December, and have to say that it’s been one of the best experiences I’ve had in my professional life.  Those who have given even a brief moment’s thought toward taking on a national leadership role in PRSA – do it.  You’ won’t regret it.

I’ll write more about the conference later, no doubt – but for now, my mind and heart are with our veterans.  Some of you know I’ve worked for the past nine years with active-duty service members and veterans concerning the mandatory, yet still experimental, anthrax vaccine.  The web site I run in support of that is http://www.mvrd.org – the Military Vaccine Resource Directory.  I’m behind on updating it as usual, but will be working on it today.  What I really want to say, which still astonishes and amazes me, is that those veterans whom I know personally, who have suffered incredibly from the effects of the anthrax vaccine – everything from grand mal seizures to loss of testosterone; from tumors and cysts to years of severe bone and joint pain; from continual migraine headaches to uncontrollable hemorrhaging and loss of the ability to bear children; from short-term memory loss to extreme weakness and fatigue – to a person, they say that if they could somehow be well once again, and if the military would stop demanding they take experimental bioterror vaccines and pills, they would still go back and serve our country.

For a moment there I paused at the end of that sentence, and thought “I don’t know that anything more needs to be said about the quality and devotion of our veterans.”

But something more does need saying.  These men and women, often medical-boarded out of the service with a too-low disability rating for what they have gone through, have had to wait up to two years and more to be seen by the VA.  In the meantime, they have to pay their own medical bills – if they can; if they don’t have to sell their cars in order to do so; if they don’t have to sell their homes in order to do so; if the can still somehow hold down a job, though many can’t; if their marriages can survive under the strain, though many don’t. 

When you see a veteran out on the street in your town, think about this.  He or she may not have been able to get proper medical care in time, and his or her once-familiar world fell apart, one piece at a time.  This is how we treat our veterans when they come home, when they become ill from a service-related action.  They’ve done their jobs; now they are disposable to us. 

Outrageous barely begins to cover it.  Don’t run around with a magnetic yellow ribbon on your car.  Run, don’t walk, to your nearest veterans center or VA hospital, and ask what is needed.  You’ll gain far more than you give.

Thanks, veterans; thanks volunteers.  I hear from the DoD that there are huge efforts at work to enable a 120-day handoff between the active-duty medical system and the VA; that is still too long, but is certainly better than the years veterans have to wait now.  We need – we need desperately – to deal with the consequences of war.

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