New Crowd at the VAMC

by James Glaser
January 9, 2006

Every war brings a new crowd of men and now women to Veteran's Administration Medical Centers. When you are first discharged, you tend to bunch up at the VA with people your own age, but after years of going, you figure out that veterans from every war are in the same boat as you are. Everyone gets frustrated with doctors who have English for a second language, and the lines and long waits can drive you nuts.

After a while though, you start to notice that the older fellows waiting for their appointments seem to have more patience and have learned to take things in stride. Sometimes when you are stuck waiting for some test in a room with vets from other wars, you start listening to what they are saying to each other and realize that their concerns and needs are about the same as yours, and you notice that their disabilities are almost exactly what you suffer from.

I was at the Tallahassee VA clinic this last week and noticed some very young men. When these young veterans sit in a room with World War II and Korean War vets, they stick right out. Most of the guys in the waiting room, including me, could have been these new young warriors' fathers or grandfathers. You see someone that young with an obvious war wound and your heart goes out to them, and you remember what it was like when you first started coming to the VA.

Thinking back to when I came home from Vietnam, even in the midst of a loving family and friends, I felt so isolated. I know that these guys most likely have no one at home with whom they can talk about what happened to them either. With time, many Iraqi War vets will realize that everyone at the VA hospital or clinic can relate to what they are feeling in some way. Even the guys who never saw combat still had the experience of military life. Some of the older wounded from past wars look so good, you are surprised to learn that both of their legs are not theirs. You might watch and see a guy doing everything you can do, but he has metal prostheses for hands. Sometimes blind veterans amaze you as you watch them move around the halls.

This past week at the Tallahassee clinic, I saw a young man who had taken a bullet or piece of shrapnel in the face, and he didn't look good at all, but I was able to talk to him, and I think the fact that I was able to look him in the eye, and not away, opened up a chance for conversation. We didn't talk about his wound, that will be for another time I hope, but we did as we used to say in the Marines, "shoot the shit" for quiet awhile and he did laugh a few times.

A long time ago I was at the Tomah, Wisconsin VAMC and there was a vet there, WW II, who had taken a round in the face, too. He looked horrible to me. Every day I sat across from him in the chow hall, and finally after a long time, I was able to talk to him. I learned his "story," and he told me that the VA would always be his home now, because he couldn't take the stares and the pity he thought every one had for him. Seeing this young soldier from today's war brought that vet in Tomah and his problems back to my mind.

I didn't handle the sight of that man very well in Wisconsin, and I have always felt bad about that. I had a hard time looking him in the eye, and I'm sure he could tell. Maybe he was used to that. Maybe he was resigned to the fact that people will always have a hard time looking at him, but he taught me something. He taught me that there was a man behind the wound, and by the time I left there I could see him. So last week I got off to a better start with that young wounded soldier. I was able to look past the wound and talk to him and not let his wound hide who he was.

In every war we have, young men and women pay a heavy price. Most of them that pay the highest price, we might never see, because there are VA hospitals all over this country that house veterans who, like that vet at Tomah, will call the hospital their home.

Yes, today we have great advances in medicine, and operations can help fix up almost any wound, but for some, that means scores of operations and years of suffering and that takes a toll on a veteran's mind. Some veterans come home with parts of their minds blown away, and no amount of surgery will ever help restore them.

They say that a thousand WW II vets die every day now, and you would think that the VA would be almost deserted, but with each and every war we fill the ranks of VA right back up. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have added hundreds of thousands more young Americans to waiting lists at the VA. This past week 30 Soldiers and Marines were killed in Iraq, they won't need the VA, but those wounded will. In this war, there have been over 16 wounded for each killed.

For every American killed or wounded, there are many more who will require help some time in the future for the wounds that can't be seen. So we shouldn't forget the many Medics and Corpsman who tended to those injured and dying in combat, because they will need psychological therapy. Then there are the troops that must put their comrades in body bags. Next there are those at "graves registration," where the dead Soldiers' and Marines' bodies are cleaned up and placed in metal coffins for their return home. Many or all of the troops associated with each trooper killed and wounded will need some help in the future dealing with the trauma associated with combat. Hopefully they will all get that help at a VA Medical Center. There they will find other veterans willing to give them the understanding few can, because only those who have fought in a war know what this war in Iraq is really costing.

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