The US Department of Veterans Affairs is struggling to improve its backlog of hundreds of thousands of claims from injured veterans. Meanwhile, the veterans themselves struggle with physical and mental trauma. These are true stories from U.S. military veterans about their battle on the home front.
The VA's backlog of cases has now become a high political priority, and the agency is promising to have the problem fixed by 2015. But as recently as 2011, the agency was handing out millions of dollars in bonuses to claims processors even as the backlog was growing. We are collecting stories from veterans and their loved ones about their experiences with the VA, both good and bad.
From "a tired wife of a disabled veteran"
My husband is what is called "A veteran of peace time". That means there was no active declaration of war, even though our military was actively involved in fighting in the middle east. He served in the Navy in the mid-80s.
My husband did an 12 hour security detail (in which there was action) and upon returning to the ship late at night, there was an accident and he fell 3 stories, landed on a smaller vessel, slid into the ocean and sunk so far and so fast that when he finally resurfaced, he was on the other side of the ship - a fairly large size ship - think aircraft carrier. Because he knew they were looking for him on the other side, he swam around the front of the ship, in the dark, with what he would later discover as 3 smashed vertebrae and a what's called a winging scapula (basically your shoulder blade doesn't stay in place and just randomly pops out). He lost many teeth as well.
After being airlifted to Germany, treated there and then eventually brought state-side, he was subjected to interrogation after interrogation asking him if it was truly an accident or if he did it to get out of the service. Yes, that's exactly it. He fell 3 stories and nearly drowned, destroyed his back and shoulder, just to get out of the service.
After being honorably medically discharged, he took civilian work, where he was able to work for almost 20 years. He had a small disability rating of 30% that helped but wasn't much. But during those years he began to suffer. Suffer with chronic pain, with depression, with anxiety.
Two years after we married, some 20 years after getting out, his mental health issues blossomed. His anxiety became unbearable. He was working at an electronics retailer in the holiday season. The pressure became too intense. He started having flashbacks, paranoia about his service.
I insisted he start seeing a therapist. They assigned him to a social worker, who G-d bless her, has been with us to this day for the last 4 years. They put him on medication, but it doesn't always work. There have been on average 2-3 hospitalizations per year for psychiatric emergency for him.
Even with all these hospitalizations, getting his disability rating upped was a 2 year affair - first to 70% and then after a two week long hospitalization it was upped to 100%.
We live in NYC, and gratefully, the VA has a somewhat decent system here with several hospitals in the city and more upstate. Manhattan VA has the 17th floor devoted purely to psychiatric care - 17 North for the "treatable" ones, and 17 South for the "hard to treat" cases. And if you're really messed up, there is the infamous "Montrose". Montrose, which is upstate is for those Veterans that need long term in patient psychiatric care.
I know now, when I see him getting "there" I can say, do you feel like you need to go to 17 North? But even on 17 North, there are the guys who want to take knives and hurt themselves and others. My husband has met only one veteran who came out of Montrose, in a VA therapy group. That vet introduced himself, "My name is Dominic, and I'm a psycho."
The VA is a government establishment, and so there is no shortage of crappy care and bureaucracy. Everything shuts down every day at 4:30 p.m. If you're admitted, know that 95% of the time you're seeing residents, and on the nights and weekends, there might only be 1 resident for the whole floor. There are good psychiatrists and bad psychiatrists. There's the psychiatrist that kept my husband basically doped up and in a stupor all day. There's the psychiatrist he had been seeing for the last 2 years who one day recently was fired for billing and prescribing for patients he hadn't seen. Let's just put it this way - most doctors who work at the VA are not necessarily there because they were in the top of their class.
They often don't take what a patient says seriously. More then once my husband went into the VA's version of the ER and said he felt like hurting himself or others and they wanted to just send him home. He knew enough that he could not come home. Only when he threatened to "turn this ER upside down" did anyone take him seriously. He nearly died from being given the wrong medications for C. Difficile (which he likely picked up at the the VA).
Because the billing with the VA is so screwed up, he will only see VA doctors. He could probably benefit from seeing some specialists that aren't VA doctors, but he won't take the financial risk.
What is probably the hardest for me, is that most people, even the people who work at the VA, think that unless you served during active wartime, you can't have PTSD. Anyone who serves in the military, who has seen some form of action whether in active wartime or "peacetime" can have PTSD. As my husband says, "That's what you get for dodging bullets."
When people look at my husband and say, "Oh he's fine, he can go back to work," I think to myself - do you know what my life is like? That my husband refuses to ever get back on a boat of any kind for fear of triggering an episode? That even the Staten Island Ferry is off limits? That the thought of going to the pool and swimming is enough to give my husband enough anxiety that he can't leave the house for a few days? That we can never go any place by plane because current airport security measures can trigger an episode? That there are some days, he can't get out of bed because he feels like a failure because he can't hold a job? That a nasty person can set my husband off?
My dear sweet husband is probably never going to go be able to handle a regular job again. He sees his therapist every week. He attends whatever groups they want him to - CBT, DBT, etc. He sees a psychiatrist once a month for 20 minutes for medication management. He has a slew of specialists for all the broken parts of his body beyond his mental illness.
I wonder, if my husband, who has a wife to help him and advocate for him, has to fight for care and disability benefits, what about those veterans who don't? The vets who are homeless, physically and mentally disabled, who need long term care?
From a Cold War veteran
When Ronald Reagan began what would be seen as the final phase of the Cold War, I enlisted. I was 17 when I graduated high school and could see few desirable prospects. During my service, my health gradually degraded in a number of ways. One of these, but not the least of them was emotionally. I now have been diagnosed with a mood imbalance that follows most of the patterns of Bipolar or Cyclothymic disorder.
I suffer waves upon seemingly-endless waves of resentment, self-loathing, depression and mental and emotional despondency, sometimes for months at a stretch. Alternately, I have (usually much shorter) periods of giddy optimism and unrealistic designs for the future (dashed to pieces by my physical limitations time and time again). My life is not pleasant. I have often wished for death but have always found I am unable to self-harm. To say that this has been a disaster in my personal, family and vocational life would be an understatement of the order of “an ice cube punctured the Titanic.”
I have taken medications to attempt alleviating this, with a wide variety of results, most of them bad to very bad. The V.A. mental health-care system is an ugly, rude, demeaning process and program to suffer through and has given me a self-image of shame and hopelessness in my struggle to find some help toward wellness. The V.A. has lodged me in a ghetto of second-class care because I suffer from something broadly grouped under “Mental Illness.” My illness is only real to me, apparently, because it takes place within my skull and only affects my behavior and perceptions.
The VA's bureaucracy
I'm not a veteran, but my father was. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam on a naval bomber, during which he was exposed to Agent Orange. After he died in 1988 at the age of 41 from a large-cell lymphoma that killed him less than four months after it was discovered, my mother, who was left to raise three children under the age of eight, fought hard to have him declared a casualty of war. I'm sure her struggle with the VA would warrant an e-mail itself, but I don't know the details of her fight, just that it was successful and that she got survivors' benefits for the family.
I went to college in 1999 and received Chapter 35 education benefits for dependents. Every month I would receive a check for a few hundred dollars, which helped me pay my tuition at the state school I attended. For various reasons, I left after one year, and about a year later I started receiving letters from the VA claiming that I had never attended and insisting I pay back the benefits I had received. To be clear, the benefits weren't contingent on graduating, somehow some paperwork had been messed up and the VA was claiming that I had never attended at all and was somehow scamming them out of their money.
These letters contained no e-mail address and no phone number, only a physical address in Missouri to which I could direct correspondence. In 2001. There were phone numbers listed on the VA's web site, but none for the chapter 35 benefits and every time I tried calling any other ones (and I tried them all), I was told that the person on the other line couldn't handle those particular benefits and that there was no number they could transfer me to so I could reach someone who could. So I sent letters explaining my situation and asking what was needed to fix it. Every time I sent a letter I would get a response months later addressing none of the points I made or questions I asked and telling me to pay back the thousands of dollars they claimed I owed them. I tried going to my local VA office, where they were nice, but told me that there was nothing they could do and that I had to send letters to the address.
This lasted a couple of years, and then I started getting letters from a collection agency explaining that I was about to be sued if I didn't pay back the benefits. When I called the collection agency to dispute the debt, I was told that I would have to work it out with the VA by... wait for it... writing a letter. In the meantime, in 2003 I returned to college and my benefits, which I was still entitled to, were denied because they claimed I still owed them money. Having been denied needed money to get my education back on track and on the verge of being sued by the government, I went to my local VA office again. I brought everything I could find that I thought might be relevant: proof of enrollment at the first school, benefit letters from that first year, all correspondence with the VA that I still had, the letter from the collection agency, proof of enrollment at my new school, papers that proved my father was a casualty of war. I explained my situation to a worker there and he called some number out of some binder he had in his office.
I still remember his advice as we listened to the automated phone tree on speakerphone, "it's best not to mash on any of them buttons... just don't do anything and you'll talk to a person." It worked. After arguing with the operator a bit (she was still claiming that there was no number for someone who could deal with chapter 35 benefits) he got a number for someone who could deal with chapter 35 benefits. He called it, spoke with someone, described my paperwork, they made a change, and it was all fixed. It took about five minutes and there was no more claim of debt and I received a check in the mail for the missed months of my new enrollment. After two years of stress, and worrying about being sued, and worrying that I would have to drop out of college a second time, it took five minutes.
I know my story isn't of the same type as those who have been disabled themselves, or have felt suicidal, or have had parents neglected in nursing homes. I know a lot of people have it way worse than I did. But as a story of bureaucratic inefficiency, I think it's a good representation of the problems with the system. I'd hope that in the last ten years things have gotten better, that the department no longer wastes two years on an error that could be fixed in five minutes if it were possible to call the right person, but I don't think that's the case. I know it's not.
The VA saved me
My VA story might be a bit unique in the sense that I was off active duty for 24 years before I approached the VA for help, and since its a positive story about the VA so you may not be interested, but here goes; I spent most of the 1980's on active duty as an Airborne Infantryman, enlisting a week after I turned 17 and deploying to exotic shit holes all over the globe, finally ending my Military career up at the DMZ in Korea. While deployed at the DMZ I got myself in to a bit of hot water while partying in Seoul on a 72 hour pass in the summer of 88' and received an other than honorable discharge... Suffice it to say The Army doesn't look kindly on not showing up for duty once a pass expires and they threw the book at me...
Fast forward to October of last year when I was working as a framing carpenter in Boston, I was getting paid under the table and I hurt my back on the job. Since I was working off the books I had no protection under workmen's compensation and watched as my savings quickly ran out, hospital bills piled up and I was unable to earn a living. To say I was treated badly by the hospital staff where I sought treatment would be an understatement, but that's another story. At my wits end and in extreme pain, as well as homeless at this point, an old Army buddy urged me to reach out to the VA and see if they could help. Since I had 7 years of honest fateful service under my belt prior to my troubles in Korea, I qualified for benefits and the VA in New Hampshire took me in, treated my injury, got my in to emergency housing, since at that point I was living in my work van, in the winter, fed me, clothed me, gave me job counseling, helped me get a job once I was physically able, and continue to monitor my status. Above all I've been treated with dignity and respect throughout the process. The same day I called the VA homeless Veterans hotline I was taken in and examined by a doctor and given a clean safe place to call home while I get back on my feet. If it wasn't for the VA I honestly don't know where I'd be right now. When the chips were truly down for me, and all my so called friends turned their back on me, the VA saved me. Even with a black mark on my record.
[If you're a veteran who would like to share your own VA story, you can email Hamilton@Gawker.com. Image by Jim Cooke.]