*Retold with permission
I’ve never been able to figure out the VA. Ever. Sometimes I get the impression that they’re more concerned with saving money than anything else, but then I talk to a few more of their people and I conclude they genuinely don’t care about anybody at all. I guess it depends on who you ask. I know a few people have had good experiences with the VA, but I’m not one of them. They’ve done little more than multiply my stress.
When I was medically discharged for my gunshot and shrapnel wounds, I spent the bulk of my time just rehabilitating. I could hardly move my arm at first, but with a lot of rehab, just as many painkillers, and a refusal to be totally dependent on others, I can use it a little here and there. Between those injuries, the PTSD, and the panic attacks, I had my hands full. But in time, I moved forward. I was doing much better, my medications were just about perfect, and I was looking forward to going back to finish college. All I had to do was fill out all the VA education paperwork and I’d be sitting in classes again. It would be a new chapter for me, no doubt hard work, but I was ready. Everything was under wraps.
There’s always a “but,” though. In this case, I had to sit down with a VA case manager and tell him precisely my intentions, why I felt I was ready, and what I intended to study. All this just to get cleared for GI Bill benefits. I’ve never heard of anybody having this much trouble with it before. During that meeting, the VA guy asks, “it says here on your record that you went to the doctor two weeks ago. What was her name?”
How the heck was I suppose to know that? I’ve seen doctors for PTSD, for evaluations, for gunshot wounds, rehabilitation, follow-ups, you name it. I remembered that particular doctor’s face and I could tell you exactly what she looked like, but her name? No way. Sorry, I told him. I can’t remember.
“Well, if you can’t even remember your doctor’s name from an appointment two weeks ago, I don’t think you’re recovered sufficiently to be in school. You’re not ready yet.”
Most frustrating, however, was this: the man wasn’t a medical professional, and nor was he acting on the recommendation of some doctor. No, he was just making his own evaluation, and determining that I was unfit to study anything.
I wrote my congressman about it, and he actually sent a letter to the VA, but the VA responded simply by saying that their mental health professionals had deemed me psychologically unsound for college. I contacted several other veteran service organizations, but of all of them, only one followed through, and that was the VFW. I’ve met with their representative and given him all the information about my situation, but he hasn’t done anything about it. And that was all last year. Nobody really seems to care. Never mind that I went through a multi-week recruiting school last year and graduated at the top of my class. They weren’t impressed with the certificate. This, more than anything, has arrested my recovery. Going to school has been what I’ve wanted to do. This is the very thing that’s helping me improve – moving forward with my life and putting the past behind me. Yet, it’s the very thing they’re forbidding me to do.
But there’s more to the story, actually. Much more. Between the frustration of being denied my own GI Bill benefits on account being psychologically “unsound,” being laid off from my job, and more recently wading through mountains of VA paperwork to continue the appeal process, my stress has gone back up. In fact, in May it began to worsen such that my anti-anxiety medication wasn’t working anymore. I was starting to get panic attacks again, so I called the VA one evening to see if they could offer some advice on how to adjust my dosage or prescription.
It was after hours when I called, so they suggested that I go to the local civilian emergency room, tell them my situation, and they’d give me a provisional prescription until the VA was able to schedule an appointment to see me. It sounded fairly simple, so my wife and I drove down to the local ER and waited to be seen.
As usual, they wanted to know my case history, so I went through all the questions about my symptoms, the anxiety, and so on. Then they wanted to know the source of it, which I guess is reasonable. So, I told them. I was a veteran, I was severely wounded in Iraq, stabilized, and returned to the states for medical discharge. I’ve had PTSD and anxiety from my whole experience. I told them the truth.
Next thing you know, they switch gears and give me the whole PTSD questionnaire. Do you have a desire hurt yourself? Do you want to hurt others? The answers to both those was no. Then they asked me the same questions in the past tense: have I, at some point in the past, wanted to hurt others. Well, yes. I was an infantryman. It was my job to kill. I did it in Iraq because I had to, and I never want to do it again. It’s a dark chamber of my heart I have no desire to revisit. That answer freaked them out, though, and they announced they needed to keep me there for further evaluation. It only worsened my anxiety. They were basically holding me captive.
I explained that I was due to take my pain medication and they gave me something, but all it did was severely impair my mental processes. It didn’t really help anything. I was still trapped, so I called the cops and explained my situation. I was being held against my will. I had to go to work the next morning. If I didn’t, I could very well lose my job.
To their credit, the police dispatched two officers who attempted to reason with the hospital staff and get them to reconsider my responses to their questionnaire, but they wouldn’t budge. Their decision was final, so the officers left, leaving just me and my wife in the observation room. My anxiety, coupled with the sensation that I was now totally out of control of my situation, brought on a full panic attack. I was never violent or aggressive. I was direct and assertive, but I was also polite. It didn’t matter. They rushed in some orderlies and injected me with a sedative. After that, my memory is fuzzy. I was too doped to remember anything clearly besides an ambulance to a mental institution.
I remember signing some paperwork and being checked in. I remember hiding my cell phone. I remember them taking my belt, my shoe laces, and any article of clothing with an elastic waistband. I remember being put in a common area full of people who looked like they really NEEDED to be there. At some point, I vaguely remember considering taking out a staffer and trying to escape. Then I dismissed the idea because I’d be labeled a criminal, and that’s one thing I wasn’t. Instead, I just tried the doors.
The staff viewed this as a threat, so they shot me with another sedative and that was the last thing I remember. I woke up about eight hours later in confinement. I was also covered in bruises. Later, they told me I’d acted threatening, whatever that means. I don’t know how I’d get bruises from acting threatening.
I asked them for my pain medication, since it was the only thing keeping my nerve pain in check, but somehow they viewed that as another “threatening gesture” and shot me with sedatives. Again, hours later I awoke in solitary. I also had more bruises. Eventually they found my cell phone and took it from me.
In total, I spent three days locked in that place. I never was allowed to shave, or even take a shower. I was sedated so often that I only ate two meals. When I weighed myself later, I’d lost between five and ten pounds. When I was finally permitted to check out, they told me, “sir, that’ll be a $20 co-pay for your stay.” Unbelievable. They were going to charge me for my own incarceration. The total bill was actually about $1,900. You know who ate that one? The taxpayers. It was a total waste.
I remember when we were guarding some insurgents in Iraq one time. Some of them were injured because they attacked the base and were shot and captured. They’d be in their cells, and they’d ask for something, like Jell-o. We’d go and get it for them. They’d ask for pain medication, so we’d go get that, too. They never heard no. We fed them, protected them, and more or less attended to their every want and desire. When I think about it, they received better care than I did in the states, and those terrorists were the very people I’d taken an oath to fight.
I come from a long line of infantrymen. My great grandfather served in World War I, and my grandfather was in World War II. I had great uncles in Korea, and then my dad was too young to serve in Vietnam. I’ve grown up respecting these men, and I’ve always been impressed with how everybody else respected them, too. They laid aside their lives and fought for us; for this country. Never in a million years did I expect to be treated as I was. I was on the road to recovery once, but that’s since been derailed. I feel like I’m starting over again, right at the beginning. And this time, with the skepticism of the civilian medical community, the apathy of the VA medical staff, and misunderstanding from the public as a whole.
Whenever I go to a civilian doctor now and they see the scars on my arms and shoulder, I tell them it was from a horrible car accident. I don’t even tell them about Iraq, or the infantry, or even that I’m a veteran. If they hear the word “veteran” and “PTSD” come out of my mouth, they’ll panic, and I might be confined again. I’ll sooner die before I go back to that place. If I have a heart attack, I’ll just collapse. I’m not calling 911. I can’t go through that again.
I’ve been shot straight through my body, blown up, hit with shrapnel, and nearly died from injuries. But none of those wounds hurt as much as being treated like I have been here in the US. None of them. So now, I just don’t talk about it with anybody. They’ll just presume I’m a criminal and a killer. When I look at a veteran, I see somebody who takes an oath to his nation and does great things. When people here see a veteran, they either don’t care, or they’re overcome with fear. If I’d know I’d be treated like this, I’m not sure I would have ever joined. It hurts too much.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved