Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Today I met yet another young veteran home from Iraq. We were in line at the VA (veterans’ administration) medical center pharmacy, which many times gives veterans a lot of time for conversing. I’ve been meeting young veterans like him for several years now, and it breaks my heart every time. Not that it matters, but I’m doing better at dealing with these interactions. When they first started to come home from the wars I would have to find a place to cry uncontrollably where they didn’t see me. Thankfully, I don’t do that anymore.
I became a disabled veteran at the age of 24 back in 1994. I didn’t go to war myself, but I saw desert storm syndrome long before the country was aware of it, and I had my own trauma to deal with. So, in some ways I can relate to these young men and women who come home changed. I guess that’s evident with all my crying a few years ago.
Back to the young 23 year old veteran I met today. When I had a moment to ask him about himself, I was competing with a vietnam veteran determined to blurt out every detail of football he could think of, I learned quite a bit. His story is one I’ve heard many times. Among other serious injuries, he had a broken back and PTSD. He had been to Iraq 3 times, survived 2 IED (improvised explosive devise) attacks and fallen from the top of a two story building. When talking about life too much I noticed his eye started to twitch. Something I’m noticing is that the emotional trauma is getting worse. Much worse. I didn’t think that was possible.
Before I had a chance to ask him how the VA is treating him (the Vietnam veteran was still there, now talking about how he was treated when he got out - which was horrible), he told me that his VA doctor wants to operate on his back. The difference between his story and mine (and many others of my era - desert storm) is that the VA seems to want to help him. As for me, I still can’t get to see an orthopedic doctor about my service connected knee injuries. I’m scheduled for the start of my second round of knee surgeries, since I got out, in two days with a private doctor. That’s how it was the last time too. I’m glad to hear the VA wants to help him. I have no clue why I’m getting stonewalled. I never have. I consider it a mystery of the universe at this point and am thankful that I now have medicare.
The problem is, that he’s rightfully afraid to have a VA surgeon operate on his back. He’s had friends who had similar surgeries (I told you I’ve heard his story before!) at the VA and came out worse than when they went in. I know people like that too. So, my advice to him was to wait until the congress passes new health care legislation, get health insurance, then go to Duke or Columbia or somewhere similar to find the best surgeon he can to get his back fixed. I told him about my father who had back surgery and is playing golf, and about that tennis player in the US Open this year who also had back surgery. The difference is that my father, and probably that tennis player, had the best surgeons they could find. My father has lots and lots of money and went to Columbia University in New York City. Whereas, veterans get residents in training if we’re lucky, or doctors who graduated in the bottom of their classes, or from schools in non-western countries. Once in a blue moon there’s a good doctor in the VA system who’s there because she or he really cares about veterans, but those folks are rare and hard to get to. A young veteran just home from a war zone isn’t going to have the know how or the patience to find those doctors if they aren’t assigned to them initially. I must give those doctors credit though.
My question to the reader is, why are those of us who serve our country in the armed forces getting mediocre care at best? Usually, it’s substandard care but many veterans are not medically savvy enough to know that. I was glad to see the veteran I met today knew the difference. To qualify myself, I was an emergency medical technician before I joined the Navy, was a Hospital Corpsman in the Navy, my mother is a Registered Nurse as well as my aunt and both of them have taught me a great deal over the years in addition to my own training. Plus, my sister is a genetics professor and I’ve taken a bunch of college science and math classes since the Navy. So, between all that, the stories I’ve heard from so many others, and my own abysmal VA medical care since 1994 I can say with some credible authority that the VA medical care is light years away from being up to par.
We, the citizens of the United States, sent this young man to Iraq three times. I think owe him the best medical care this country can possibly give him. In my opinion we should pay for him to get his back surgery with the best back surgeon at Duke, or Johns Hopkins, or Columbia, rather than making him a drug addict from all the narcotic pain medications he had to pick up at the pharmacy today. Like his comrades who were operated on by VA surgeons will undoubtedly become. I’ve seen countless drug addicted Vietnam veterans limping around the VA medical centers over the years. I can tell you that if we just spent the money up front and did everything we possibly could to put this guy back on his feet, he would become a contributing tax paying citizen. If we don’t, there’s a good chance the opposite will happen. Like what eventually happened with me (it took a while - I fought it). Only, I didn’t become a drug addict, despite the Navy’s and VA efforts to make me one. I just got very sick. My body finally gave in. That happens to a lot of us. However, if the VA had just done what they should have in the very beginning, I would not be a living casualty today. I’m still fighting by the way, we’ll see what happens. Those of us who joined the voluntary armed forces are hard chargers. We don’t go down easy. The young man I met today was definitely high in those ranks and was proud of his service to his country.
As I watched the still strong, young, and vibrant 23 year old veteran limp away from the pharmacy window with his brown paper bag, I couldn’t help wondering if he will have the determination to avoid the fate of so many veterans before him who disintegrated into despair and drug addiction from the extreme pain and trauma he clearly suffers from. No matter what, I know he has a new war to fight.
Will we do what it takes to help him, or will we let him disintegrate like the rest of us who have gone before him?