Many folks think Veterans are receiving “free” healthcare from the Veterans Administration. Despite all the bad press about Veterans dying waiting for an appointment at Veterans’ Administration (VA) hospitals and clinics in places like Los Angeles and Phoenix, and countless other less extreme examples of the neglect and malpractice at VA centers around the country (just Google “VA problems”), the VA seems to be getting away with changing absolutely nothing save for leasing a bunch of new buildings and hiring new clerks to tell us to wait. Oh, and if you are not unfortunate enough to be rated 50% or more disabled due to service-connected injuries or illnesses, you get to pay co-pays for your prescription medications, and they bill Medicare and private insurance if you have them. The prevailing public attitude is that it’s somehow not a big deal that the care sucks since it’s free anyhow. I mean, what do these people expect, right? If they want decent healthcare, they should get a job and earn it. Even if you haven’t heard these exact words spoken out loud, it is clear through continuing circumstances that this sentiment prevails on city streets and in the halls of congress. Why else would we, as a nation, and most of our Federal legislators – who have entire task forces among their staffs working to resolve Veterans complaints against the VA every day – let this egregious mistreatment of Veterans continue unabated?
Well, the answer may be complicated by long-standing bureaucracy, greed, and corruption at every level. But at it’s core, the problem is a lack of respect for our Veterans. We give them lip service these days, quite literally, “thank you for your service!” But we do nothing to express our gratitude in any meaningful way. Even the homeless veteran programs require that they already be on the street to receive help – there is no emergency rent program available through the VA. The beautiful buildings that house the new Health Care Clinics that are popping up across the country, the ones with the halls so wide that you can drive three or four tractor-trailers through side-by-side, are really nice. The care within them is not so nice in many cases. Doctors facing malpractice lawsuits in the private sector, with histories of being disciplined by professional organizations, are snapped up by the VA because they are immune to lawsuits as Federal employees. My new neurologist is one of them. Anything goes in the VA! So just how lucky are these vets to receive this “free” healthcare? And is it really free if it costs them their health and their life?
Perhaps looking at what sets our veterans apart from the average citizen will help to reframe our thinking on this matter. It might also help to just think about being in their shoes, with no choice of care providers. Yes, it’s possibly an improvement over no health insurance, but that’s debatable. Beginning in World War II and ending during the Vietnam War, veterans were conscripts, drafted into service against their will. Many of those who were drafted are among the oldest living Veterans and are most in-need of quality VA healthcare today. Since 1973, military service has been all-volunteer. Vets themselves are generally a humble bunch, whether drafted or volunteers, and don’t like to talk about their service except with other vets, and they rarely mention their sacrifices. I don’t talk much about my service or the hardships I endured, and I didn’t even see the horrors of combat in my twenty-two years. It’s just the way we were indoctrinated, to quietly go about the business of serving the nation, even when we tolerated abuses. But I will speak for my fellow veterans here and now. I will tell you who we are and why we deserve quality healthcare by qualified professionals delivered with dignity, not hack jobs delivered by cocky, ne’er-do-wells who couldn’t cut it in the private sector.
Veterans are people who served in the Armed Forces to defend our nation against all enemies, foreign and domestic, as the oath goes. They served in a variety of settings, both in the continental United States and overseas. They served by applying a broad array of skills both collegiate and technical, honed through exacting repetition, simulation, and experience. They served on land, in the air, and at sea. They served in peacetime and in various wars and conflicts, sanctioned and covert, cold and hot. They served through times of abundance when new equipment was in excess, and lean times when even duct tape was scarce. They served even when their paychecks didn’t come because congress didn’t pass the budget. They served despite faulty equipment and ineffective body armor. They served for three years or thirty. Some rode in armored vehicles or aircraft or ships, while others hiked with 80-pound packs or rode a desk or trained those that came after them. They were all on call 24/7/365, leaving their families and interests behind to spend evenings and weekends and holidays on base or in a hangar or in the desert or in a jungle or floating on the freezing North Atlantic or in a metal tube in the depths of the Pacific ocean. Many are “presumed” wounded, with their odd clusters of symptoms attributed to exposure to the chemicals of war both abroad and at home. In many cases, no medical solutions to their ailments exist, and the extent of their continued suffering and that of their offspring remains unknowable. Many took bullets or shrapnel or got their heads banged around or lost arms or legs or eyes or fingers or their minds so that you could rest comfortably in your bed, your biggest concern being whether there was milk for your cereal in the morning. They never asked for your thanks, nor do they want it even today. What they want is what they earned. They earned quality healthcare. They are not lazy freeloaders. How dare you judge them. How dare you judge me.
As many as 20% of veterans – 30% of Vietnam Veterans – experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
200,000 Veterans ago homeless on any given day in the U.S.
20 Veterans a day commit suicide in the U.S.
Is this the best we can do?