OK, so I am writing this because of all the things coming out about VA Hospitals and how they treat veterans, and while I am writing it, old memories start popping into my mind, and I want to get them down here, too. So, if this rambles a bit and you think I could have put it together better, you are probably right, but this is almost like therapy getting it out of my mind and down on paper. Here goes.
My first trip to the VA Hospital as a Veteran was back in 1971 or maybe 1972. It was the old Minneapolis VA, and what I remember most is all the colored lines on the floor. "Follow the yellow line to X-ray" or "follow the red line to blood drawing." Blood drawing is just what vets call the lab.
Back then, being a Vietnam vet you would actually get some grief from WWII vets who would tell you that yours was not a "real" war. There were some harsh words going back and forth there for some time, especially as Vietnam vets let their hair grow out and looked more like hippies than veterans in the eyes of those older vets.
It wasn't until the late 1980s that the new hospital was built, and by that time Nam vets were accepted just like any other vet. I have traveled around a bit, and one VA in Oklahoma was so old that it didn't have a waiting room. Everyone would hang around outside and every so often a guy would come out with a bull horn and yell out the name of the next patient to enter.
I was in Arizona after the first Gulf War and I remember so many older men and women pushing younger men around in wheelchairs. The guys in wheelchairs were all from one National Guard unit that went to Iraq, and they were all sick, but the VA was telling them it was just psychological. One dad told me his son was a lawyer, a partner in a big firm and would be making great money if he could work. But he couldn't. He was so sick that he was down to 100 pounds and was too weak to walk. The VA was doing nothing for him. That happened to thousands of returning Gulf War Vets.
The same was true for Vietnam vets with PTSD or Agent Orange. There wasn't anything even called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) until 1980, but there were guys needing help after every war. Today there are Korean War vets, WWII vets, and vets from every war after that getting mental health care help from the VA. But keep in mind that there was a 35 year lag time before the VA offered help for many WWII veterans. And you wonder why we have over 20 vets committing suicide each and every day?
So, yes I have issues with the VA. I have spent months at a time in VA hospitals and know some of them inside out. I have to say I have had great experiences at the VA for which I am grateful. I have had truly horrible ones, too.
I have met hundreds of vets, maybe even thousands who are out-and-out afraid to use the VA for a myriad of reasons. Some are afraid they will be put away forever. Others believe the VA gives a bonus if a doctor can off a vet. I have heard that one from many guys. Some are afraid of the drugs the VA puts guys on, and I have seen guys so addicted they are at the VA begging for a refill of their script.
Over the years, I have met wonderful people at the VA— veterans with no arms, blind vets, vets with horrible ugly facial wounds that never leave the VA because of how the public treats them. Many guys are just normal guys trying to raise a family and live their life.
I have met wonderful VA employees and some great doctors and nurses; great people who do the paper work and schedule your next appointment; wonderful people who clean the halls and work security.
However, I have also met many doctors who speak English so poorly I couldn't understand anything they said, and who would get mad when you told them that. You don't have a lot of faith in a doctor who yells at you and gets angry saying that you are so dumb you can't understand what they are saying. Usually, after a bout with one of those doctors you have a long, long wait before you ever get another appointment. There are nurses who can stick a needle in you to draw blood, and you won't even feel it. But there are others who will pass that needle right through your vein.
There are foul-ups in every big organization, but after a while you figure out that the VA has way more than any other place you have to deal with throughout your life.
I gotta tell you. I like going to the VA. After a while you start to see the same people who are on kind of the same appointment schedule you are on. You don't really become friends, but soon you find you pick up conversations you had last time you met. You get to learn which guys think the way you do, and you enjoy visiting with them. There are some long waits even if you are on time or early for your appointment. It is nothing to wait a few hours past your appointment time. As they say, "shit happens," like earlier appointments took longer and things get backed up. Somebody comes in for Urgent Care, and they slip them into the mix and they weren't planned for. Most guys who have used the VA for years know this.
They have these signs that say if you have waited 30 minutes past your appoint time to come up and tell them. I used to do that, and others I talked to did too, but I never heard anyone say it did any good. It never did for me. They just give you some plausible excuse, and you go sit down and wait your turn.
This is the truth. I have driven over 100 miles to a VA appointment only to find out after hours of waiting that the doctor I was to see was on vacation, and they forgot to notify me. Once It was over 250 miles one way. Like I said, shit happens.
For a few years I was Commander of VFW Post 3869 in Northome, Minnesota, and before and after every meeting we would just sit around and talk about everything under the sun, but I cannot remember any meeting that somebody didn't tell us about some screw up at the VA. They couldn't get their heart meds, or they drove the 270 miles down to the VA only to find their appointment canceled, or they got one of those doctors who couldn't speak English.
Here is a good example of how the VA treats veterans. I was in a PTSD program at the Minneapolis VA. One of the guys who had been going to counseling there died. I didn't know him, because I had just started but I could tell it hit everybody real hard. Someone asked the doctor how he died, and the doctor who was running this group counseling meeting said it was a car accident, and everyone was saying or thinking, Bummer. A few weeks later the parents of that dead vet came to the building where the PTSD vets got their care and said they would like to put up a plaque about their son saying how much this place helped him. A guy asked how the accident happened and his mom said "Accident? George hung himself." You learn after a while the VA will lie to you any time they want about anything they want.
At least for me, there is very little trust when it comes to my having my healthcare taken care of at the VA. When I got out of the Marines I found it was almost impossible to get health insurance if you were severely disabled. If you could find a policy, you sure couldn't afford it. So the VA has been my provider of healthcare for over 40 years.
I have come to think of dealing with the VA as a game. If you know the rules of the game you can play it much better. There are no written rules that I know of, but after forty years of playing, I have learned some things that work.
First off you can't be arrogant, and for sure you can't demand anything. One time while waiting at the Minneapolis VA for my appointment, I saw this guy at the front desk where you walk in, and he had taken his artificial leg off and was beating it on the counter yelling, "What the fuck do you think happened, you fucking thinking it grew fucking back?" The guy was losing it right there and a couple of us walked up not knowing what was wrong, but could see Security moving in and one of us said to the guy, "I can help you." He looked at us and he already had tears in his eyes. He was at wit's end, and he wanted somebody to help him. We told the Security guys it was OK, and surprise, they said OK. I found out the VA had canceled his disability check. Yes, it was a mistake; his leg had not grown back on. We took him to the Fraternal Order of the Purple Heart office right there in the hospital and the Purple Heart staff member listened to the guy and said he would get his check reinstated within two weeks, and if he needed funds to live on he would get him something that day. Even though this guy was totally in the right, he didn't know how to play the game. One thing I have found that always seems to work, at least most of the time is to come right out and calmly ask for help. Maybe it is a power trip they are on or maybe there is just some soft-hearted person working at the VA, but either way, most times whomever you ask for help from at the VA will at least listen to your need, and if they can't help you themselves, they will get you to where you can get help. But many times they send you to the wrong place and you have to start the game all over, but hey, it's a game.
I think it helps to be clean, and polite. It helps a whole bunch if you can remember the person's name. When you find out who makes your next appointment, get their name and write it down so you can remember it next time. A smile and calling the guy or lady by name can get you an appointment not only on the day you want and near the time you want, but sometimes months earlier.
If you find a doctor who you can understand, and who you think knows what they are doing, and who lets you ask questions and answers those questions in a manner you are able to understand, thank him or her and tell them how much you appreciate the care they give you. Believe me, when you really need medical help, a doctor that you have built a relationship with is a wonderful contact to have at the VA.
If you build up a relationship with a nurse, they can tell you a lot about which doctor is the best, and at the VA, nurses do a lot of the care you receive. They are important.
If nothing else works, and you feel you are getting the runaround, you can contact a politician and if it is an election year or their staff is in the mood, they can get the VA to see you, but from years of experience you should only do that if you are in dire need. It is almost like the VA feels it is unsportsmanlike to play their game that way.
If you are upset with your care, write a letter to the head doctor of the department or clinic you are in. If you don't write well, get somebody else to write your thoughts. People at the VA worry about people who can write coherently. Oh yes, don't think your letter is going to change anything, it will never make it any farther up that chain of command at that hospital or clinic.
I could go on for hours about what I have seen at the VA. I could talk about guys I knew who offed themselves, but really that doesn't do me any good. Forty years of dealing with Government Health care is exhausting to think about. Many guys figure it is no longer worth it, and so they end it.
Today we have this big brouhaha going on about how bad care is at the VA. Politicians are thumping their chests in outrage about it, but that will blow over, and veterans will be stuck with what they had. Those who figure out how to work the system or play the game will get most of the care they need. Maybe it won't be timely, and that might cost some of them their lives, but a good percent will get by.
Yes, there are veterans who will read this and tell you that they got fabulous care at the VA, and as far as they are concerned everything is fine there. I hope that they thank God every time they get a new appointment. The truth is though, veterans are dying waiting to get the medical help they were promised for their service to our country. Thousands and thousands of veterans are stressed to the max over the hassle it is to get good care from the VA, and many of those veterans give up and commit suicide. You would think we could do better than we do, after all, veterans were willing to give us their lives to protect us. You can't ask for much more than that.
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