In our first conversation, Coming Home: Veterans Readjusting to Civilian Life, our contributors — including veterans, family members of veterans and members of organizations that support veterans — share their own stories, offer insights on the challenges facing returning veterans, and provide tips and resources on the kinds of support that families, friends and communities can offer veterans.
Not too long ago, and not very far away, I had an unusual experience at a Veterans Administration (VA) examination. The examination was for what's called a "presumptive service-connected Agent Orange malady," and it was a compensation examination — an examination of a veteran's service-related medical condition that determines whether or not he should receive compensation from the VA.
I served my tour of duty in Vietnam in what I came to call "Agent Orange Central," that wide swath of dead vegetation north and west of Saigon, a main Viet Cong infiltration route from Cambodia. My condition was a result of the time I spent there, so I filed a claim for the Agent Orange malady with the VA. This claim was immediately denied, before I was even examined. Isn't that amazing? I then contacted a unit in the VA that handles complaints, and they suggested that I send a letter to the VA administrative unit responsible. I did so, and as a result, I received an appointment for the compensation examination mentioned above. I thought things would proceed normally and without additional problems, but I soon learned that I was mistaken.
At the appointed time and date, the person performing the compensation exam strode into the room and demonstratively announced "This is your disease, not ours!" Wow, isn't that a little different! The examiner had a completely unprofessional attitude, and clearly felt he had the upper hand. I didn't want to get into a PTSD trigger situation for myself, with someone who was behaving like an enemy, so I decided not to do anything in response to the examiner.
Nevertheless, as a result of the examination, I did receive a disability monthly compensation. However, things got more peculiar following the examination when someone inside this particular VA unit filed some claims on my behalf without my knowledge! These claims were for secondary medication effects, and they were denied. The effects of the medication on my body were still happening and evolving, and I had eventually planned to file the claims if the effects became worse, and more obvious. But apparently, someone at the VA was looking into a crystal ball about my condition. Or perhaps they were just trying to add to statistics to impress a boss — was there a count of how many compensation claims were filed, and then denied? I will wager that if I eventually end up filing for those same secondary medication effects, I'll get a letter telling me to appeal the original denial of claims — claims that I never filed in the first place!
The whole experience confirmed my feeling that there were some people inside the VA who are actually anti-veteran, and they let their biases bleed into their jobs. We have all read hearsay reports of someone in the VA "saying that PTSD was not real," and so on, and my experience seemed to confirm some of those reports. The absolute last thing a veteran needs is to be harassed by the organization that is supposed to be working on his behalf, and that is charged with diagnosing and treating illnesses for veterans. The veteran also shouldn't be treated as if he was stealing compensation money from the government by someone in the VA.
Still, this whole experience is the only thing that mars my personal dealings with the VA. I have heard other stories of frustrating occurrences with the VA. For example, someone I know made a service-connected claim, and the VA took three years to accept a service medical record validation. It is almost as if there are people inside the VA who are afraid to make decisions, or who are not empowered to make decisions, or who are micromanaged into paralysis, or who just sit on heaps of files, not processing them and waiting for a rainy day to finally get to them.
The VA is perceived as an organization that works at light speeds to deny a claim, but works at a snail's pace to accept a claim. That may be caused, in part, by the inexact records (medical records, combat action, unit records, etc.) produced and kept by the Department of Defense, which the VA depends upon to verify service connection. I understand that there has been some progress made in this area at the VA, using common sense instead of placing the burden of proof solely upon the veteran. There is never an easy answer for this problem, but it's good to know that efforts are being made.
I realize the VA is not perfect, and I'm glad the organization is becoming aware of its problems. I do believe, though, that the VA needs to be more proactive in asking veterans for opinions, especially in a personal, one-on-one, way. I know that is expensive, but it will be far more accurate than pop-up survey windows for a population that might not be very computer savy.
The VA would also be well advised to immediately fire any VA employee who spreads false and/or misleading medical information, like PTSD opinions, using the VA for authority. Those of us with PTSD and other conditions become outraged when this kind of thing happens. It only leads to the veteran having more trust issues with the government. Trust issues are already very widespread within the veteran population for a variety of reasons. Why tolerate people with the VA making things worse?
Overall, my experience with the medical professionals at the VA has been outstanding. I can say that I have never encountered such a persistent and proactive medical organization anywhere. The medical services I receive are far better than what others receive with their employer's medical plans. The VA even provides me with a clinical pharmacist, whom I can call to discuss medication issues and problems. I like being an informed medical consumer, so I read, ask questions and learn as much as I can with what is going on with my conditions and what the VA is doing about it. Like the VA, I am not perfect, and my state of mind sometimes frustrates the medical professionals charged with my care. But that is the price when combat experience, depression, anxiety and other issues cloud my mind with agendas of their own at times.
Veterans in the United States are fortunate to have the VA. If you take a time machine back to WWI, the veteran's plight was far worse. Go back still further, and the veteran's plight was abysmal. The VA, like any other government organization, is plagued with budgets, politics, bean counters, politics, know-it-all consultants and more politics. I believe that Congress and the Executive Branch need to continue to be more transparent and proactive with veterans and the VA. If that can happen, the United States would have a veteran population that, in part, would be more interested in serving the country in some small way, whether that's by volunteering or by being respected and viable assets and resources. Of course, some veterans will always be a grouch, or a wise guy, but for every one of those people, there are many veterans that remain respectful, and who, for the moment, remain invisible.
The bottom line, as I see it, is that veterans will react, in kind, to the manner in which they are treated. Veterans come with baggage, through no fault of their own, but from serving their country. The people of the United States need to become more aware of veteran's problems and issues. That will go a long way to improve the veteran's self-esteem, and ensure that he is of continued value to the community and the country.
Vietnam veteran. On coping with PTSD and lessons from Vietnam.
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