Last week, we asked military veterans to send us their stories of life after war— their experiences returning home and seeking health care and benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Today, we offer you some of their stories.
In the past week, we've heard from not only veterans, but also from family members of veterans, both living and deceased; from doctors who work with the VA; from journalists who've covered the VA; and from various contractors and private citizens who deal with the VA in various capacities. With all of their input in mind, we'd like to make two points about what we're trying to do:
1) The much-discussed backlog of disability claims at the VA— about half a million claims have been pending for more than four months— is primarily an administrative and political issue, not a medical one. The problem is one of processing benefits claims, and the resources that we choose to dedicate to processing claims. Doctors and other medical professionals who work for the VA are not the source of this problem. (To be fair, we've also heard from people who've worked processing VA benefits claims, who allege that vets often try to rip off the government for benefits. Everyone has a point of view.)
2) Our general goal is simply to give a platform to veterans to share their experiences on the homefront. This is not meant to be an exhaustive report on all of the issues facing the Department of Veterans Affairs. Collections of first-person stories, like this, or our Unemployment Stories, are to be taken for what they are: people directly sharing stories about their own experiences. All personal stories are subject to biases, the subtle distortions of memory, and whatnot. The value of these stories is the opportunity for people who do not usually get a voice to speak, and the opportunity for all of us to hear stories that we don't usually get to hear. These are personal histories freely shared, and taken together, they paint a picture of reality that it is hard to find elsewhere.
And now, some stories of life as a United States military veteran.
I am a veteran of several trips to Iraq.
I have been diagnosed with fairly severe PTSD (I can still function and work(some days I have to go and sit in my car because I just feel out of control of my own emotions(God bless my boss who knows about my situation but employs me and covers for me), but there are usually several days a month where my wife has to make sure she and my toddler son basically need to stay away from me because I can get pretty emotionally unstable for reasons I still can't explain because I have yet to really put a better finger on my triggers). After leaving the military, I spent almost a decade fucking, fighting, and having random emotionally erratic episodes and just chalking it up to drinking (I became a drunk) and partying (my family and friends noticed a marked difference in me, but were too worried to mention it to me (temper issues)).
It wasn't until I left my psycho, alcoholic ex-gf (nothing worse than living in a co-dependent bubble that you don't even know you're in), that I found someone (my wife) and I learned normal human fucking behavior and how love should actually work. I cut back on my partying and stopped fighting (still working on the drinking), but when my wife got pregnant I started to have REALLY LOW lows (did some things I am not proud of over there. You really can't explain what it is like to do certain things unless your audience has some experience with it, and it is also kind of heart breaking (I took no joy in it) to try and explain those things to an audience that likely has no sympathy for it and nor should they), and called the Veteran's Crisis Line when I felt I wasn't worth a damn as a parent/human and didn't deserve a healthy wife, child and family (I can't emphasize how great this number is if you really need help or just someone to talk to: 1-800-273-8255 24/7) because I was just completely lost.
The following Monday I was contacted by the nearest Vet Center (They offer help and/or counseling for mental issues or aid with disability claims) and was immediately offered weekly visits with a social worker (wonderful lady). That social worker eventually got me into weekly (psychologist) and quarterly (psychiatrist, but they are very busy trying to regulate people's meds) visits with the VA.
Ever since I started seeing these people I have gotten better. It was slow at first(several months before results) because it took some time for me to build trust to be able to share my experiences in a vulnerable and truthful manner (for those that haven't been in therapy, it can be a real bitch to REALLY open yourself up to a stranger and hope they don't tear you apart and judge you, which counselors damn near never do, but the fear is there all the same). But after a lot of time, talking, and drugs (I am currently on depression, sleep, and mood meds and I haven't felt this normal since I left the military, which brings me to my next point).
I also attend group meetings that deal with PTSD and other assorted issues (they have separate groups mostly, but sometimes they have to combine then due to lack of budget), and you can't begin to understand what people have gone through in the military (non-combat related) unless you sit in those rooms and hear first-hand some of the most gut-wrenching, soul-sickening stories you could imagine, and that leads to a lot of this:
Many veterans are over/undermedicated due to the huge overflow of vets thanks to the recent wars and the vets still living after the previous ones, combined with underfunding from the government. Like I mentioned above, I get to see my psychiatrist (drugs) at most once every 3 months for 30-60 minutes.It is just enough for him to figure out how I am dealing with my meds and whether to tweak them or not. It would be easy to have a negative opinion after reading that previous statement, but they are so overwhelmed by patients that they are basically plugging the Hoover Dam with their head and drowning. There are literally schizophrenic vets wandering the waiting room on a slightly regular basis.
I commend every last employee/volunteer I've ever run into in my year+ of dealing with the VA/Vet Center.
I filed for disability about a year ago and am just now getting ready to go in for my PTSD disability interview (it is a visit separate from my other VA visits pertaining to legitimate mental health sessions (though the guy I get to meet for one time does have access to their notes). Trust me, the VA makes no fucking sense), and I am told I am looking at at least a 5-6 month waiting period to hear back on my final findings, so about an 18-month period (much shorter than whatever bullshit timeline they put out there in the media. It is so ridiculous that I don't even remember what they said at this point).
The most irritating part is that I am blessed in that I don't need the money from disability (I actually plan on donating much of it to Veteran's charities. People I tell this to call me silly, but fuck them because I am fortunate enough to make enough income to be able to do so), but I do need to get some kind of disability rating percentage to have maximum access to VA programs without having to disclose my mental health issues to my employer via my own health insurance because if you don't have certain disability ratings they act as if they are an actual healthcare provider and go through your insurance.
Bottom line: VA workers: Good. VA outside of the individuals working for it: Bad.
I am a VA patient. I served in Baghdad for a year in 2006 (during the civil war that precipitated "the surge")
I started going to the VA for counseling after getting tired of drinking, breaking down, fighting, and generally feeling like I wanted to strangle someone at all times. That was 2009. I took the counseling seriously because I had a new girlfriend that I didn't want to subject to my breakdowns. I was satisfied with the care I got for the most part. But then I applied for VA disability and things changed.
Just before I applied for disability, I started law school. By that time I had my PTSD under control through anti-depressants, avoiding certain topics on TV and radio, limiting my drinking and going to a pet store when I sensed a breakdown instead of a bar. After two years, I finally got a response on my disability application. It said that my PTSD/"Adjustment Disorder" was not connected to my military service.
I was furious. I have never been shot at in my civilian life. I have never been blown up in my civilian life. I haven't lost an "adopted" child to a suicide bomber in my civilian life. And I haven't had to listen to a man's death over the Med-Evac frequency in my civilian life. All those things happened during my year in Iraq, but my PTSD is probably just related to my years working at UPS or something?
What's infuriating is that they approved me for back and knee disability (which I do appreciate. They could just as easily say that was a result of working for UPS for six years. Instead, they approved that but denied the thing that is most easily connected to my deployment: PTSD.
And I'm one of the lucky ones. My application process only took two years. I don't have permanent deformities. I've been able to overcome the stress of that year, but its a work in progress.
From the wife of an Afghanistan veteran
“Your only option is to take him to the VA in Cheyenne, WY miss,” the VA helpline operator tells me. My husband of all of three months had become a shell of his former self overnight. He had gone from a hardworking, compassionate, independent man to someone whose hands tremor so badly he can’t tie his own shoes and has night terrors so vivid he is often hoarse the next morning.
I coax my husband—let’s call him DJ—into the car the next morning. The dirt roads on the way are now what I know as a “trigger”. Anytime something hits the bottom of the car, DJ braces for impact and sometimes calls me by a battle buddy’s name. We arrive, to wait in the ER waiting room for several hours until a caseworker is available to assess him. She quickly decides that residential psychiatric treatment is the best solution and that he is in luck: there is a VA almost 500 miles away from home, and a plane will arrive within the hour to take DJ to the facility.
The next day I receive a call late at night from a woman named Norma Jean, a nurse on “the unit”. In hushed tones she tells me to come to the VA as soon as possible; she can’t tell me what is going on but says to get there the next morning. I pack my bag and am on the way at sunrise.
When I arrive I find out that the admitting psychiatrist diagnosed DJ with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. No surprise there. Then I found out the psychiatrist DJ has been assigned to decided after a five minute assessment that DJ has bipolar disorder and has been placed on a two medication cocktail. On my way out of “the unit”, Norma Jean stops me in a side hallway and recommends I look up bipolar disorder in the DSM. I do so and see DJ doesn’t fit the symptoms at all for bipolar 1 or 2.
DJ has a meeting every morning with the psychiatric team. His symptoms are not improving, and he is becoming increasingly agitated and unresponsive. Anytime he or I mentions that he isn’t reacting well to the medication the psychiatrist doubles his current dosage. After a few days of visiting DJ on the unit, I find out that every single one of DJ’s psychiatrist’s patients has the same diagnosis and the same medication, and each time any of them says they aren’t feeling right their meds are doubled. One soldier that this psychiatrist sees has been mute for several months. None of the patients in the unit has family who still keep in touch; at that point I’m the only non-staff member who is ever there.
My gut says something isn’t right. I push to have DJ reassessed by a different psychiatrist. The process takes several days because of clinicians rarely in the office or on vacation, but finally I manage to schedule an appointment with the head of the psychiatric department. She agrees to have DJ reevaluated and asks me to sit in the hall for a moment. DJ’s current psychiatrist’s office is near hers, the door is wide open, and I hear every detail of his explanation about how I am a “yappy cur” who needs to be quiet. When I go back into the head of psychiatry’s office, I let her know that I understand his current psychiatrist is livid, but that Doctors really shouldn’t scream patient information where everyone can hear. She is embarrassed and assures me the psychiatrist will be taken off DJ’s case immediately.
In the ten minutes the conversation takes place, DJ’s psychiatrist enters the unit, hands DJ pills, and tells him to take them. He then makes him sign an “Against Medical Advice” (AMA) release form. I find DJ in the parking lot, he thinks he is slaying dragons. I take him back inside and demand to know what in the world is going on. The head of psychiatry says that since DJ signed the AMA form, he cannot be evaluated until he admits himself back under the same psychiatrist’s care. DJ of course refuses. I have no idea what to do. We are told to go home.
DJ and I make it back to Colorado. Dropping cold turkey off of as high of a dosage of medication that he is on has disturbing side effects: he hallucinates; he throws up; he has a fever. On his first night home, he injures my wrist during a night terror.
It took two years and nine suicide attempts for DJ to finally get help through the VA system. He has had plenty more deplorable doctors; one shrieked at me how, “That’s the VA way. If you don’t like it, leave,” when DJ had a life-threatening reaction to a medication. Now, when I advocate for DJ’s and other’s care, I remember her lesson that near-fatal medical policies are the VA way. Instead of leaving, though, I do my best to make sure poor treatment at home doesn’t kill soldiers who survived deployment.
From a Marine Corps retiree
When I was in the Marines I was hurt while on active duty and rated 70% disability. Fast forward a year being out the Marines, I woke up feeling like every joint in my body was filled with glass. Called my VA provider and they told me they could get me in 3 days time, I called on a Friday, so Monday was when they could see me. I said okay, but by Saturday I couldn't walk on my own, and had family take me to the emergency room. They couldn't diagnose me since it was emergency room, gave me some anti-inflammatory meds and told me to see my regular provider. So Monday comes around and I see my VA Dr. At this point every joint was on fire and the left side of my face became paralyzed.
My Dr. was unable to diagnose me and sent me to Jesse Brown VA clinic in downtown Chicago. Made it up there, and saw a Dr who finally diagnosed me with Bells Palsy and sent me home with prednisone and said my symptoms should clear up in a few days. Thursday comes around and there is no change, but in fact I am getting worse. The rest of my face became paralyzed. I called my provider and tried explaining to him something was extremely wrong with me. He said they could schedule me for an appointment in 3-4 days time. I said no fucking way I need to be seen. He said they couldn't fit me in. I ended up going to a civilian Dr. I was there and they immediately started running tests. After receiving a spinal tap I was finally diagnosed with Guillan Barre. Guillan Barre is also called French polio because it makes your legs completely useless including facial paralysis. Guillan Barre is caused by the immune system attacking the body. The only treatment for this is plasma pharisis. I ended spending a month at the civilian hospital...
So i finished treatment and got the bill which was over 100k. Being at 70% disability rating all my Dr bills are supposed to be covered. I went through the proper routes to make sure my bills were taken care of by the VA. I sent the VA all the bills and finally heard back they were supposedly going to be covered and there should be no problem. Three months go by and I start receiving bills from the individual providers stating they were not paid. Called the VA to figure out what was going on, they said they didn't receive the tax codes from the providers and until they receive them they would not be paid. So I called every provider and had them resend the bills including tax codes. No problem right? Wrong. I am still receiving bills, call the VA to see what was happening. They said everything was still processing so they had no info. Eventually received a letter from the VA stating that the bills would not be covered because 90 days have gone by since the hospital stay...
I had to call my local representative who was Jesse Jackson Jr at the time, and have his office write the VA to get this stuff taken care of. VA got back to me saying that the hospital bills would be taken care of because they received the bills for that immediately after my hospital stay, but the providers would not be paid for because of the 3 month delay that I had no responsibility for. So here I am with my credit completely destroyed, not able to work because of my prior disabilities compounded by the Guillan Barre. I don't know where else to turn and have been living with deep depression ever since. I really don't know what to do.
Short and sweet
I left the Army after my second tour of Iraq (the most recent involving an 18 month stop loss) in 2007. During the final tour I had tweaked my knee during a raid in Sadr City. I was urged by family and friends to take advantage of medical benefits (not disability) with the VA in Memphis, TN. The VA quickly connected me with the OEF/OIF team and assigned me a VA primary care physician. The physician referred me to a specialist to look at my knee. Within a month of being home I had a free knee scope through the VA (torn ligaments).
For the next three years, I was provided free medical care including medicine and counseling for mild anxiety.
I could not be happier and more at ease with the care I received through the VA.
"I've never escaped"
"All men who go to war die kid, anybody who comes back, well they came back cheated."
In a poorly lit bunker that stunk of smoke, strong alcohol and vomit, that was something that one of hardened GI's said to me the first night I was deployed. Its stuck with me all these years, more years than you have probably been alive for Mr Nolan.
War, I believe, dare not be commented on by those who has yet to experience it. Until you kill other human beings for survival, what could you possibly say about it? It assaults all your scenes, the smell of death and the machines that cause it. Noises so loud you feel like an ant under a lawnmower. It is incomprehensible.
During my deployment (to a country that wasn't officially at war) Children, woman, teenagers and men alike all met an indiscriminate end at my hand. On my best days I tell myself I killed to survive, on my worst my mind tells me I committed acts of madness so that i didn't go mad.
There are a lot of grudges that I hold close to my heart, in some sense it means that I will always be at war. At war with my actions, at war with my survival, at war with suits who tell you that you kill for a good cause and that we (the west) were/are the good guys.
I know you asked for stories of veterans dealing VA and I'm not one of them, hell I'm almost as far away from The United States as you can possibly get. But today I couldn't escape what i had done more than 40 years ago. Although I came back, I've never escaped. And although i survived, how much of me died in the piece of shit swamp?
I may have cheated death, but just like that Joe prophetically said in smoke fueled haze all those years ago, life has cheated me.
[Thanks to everyone who wrote in. If you're a veteran who would like to share your story, you can email Hamilton@Gawker.com. Image by Jim Cooke]