By Matt Wadler:
Progress or Lack Thereof: Our Wounded Warriors in Waiting.
It was once said to me that, “Combat is a young man’s game.” I must agree, especially as I get older and feel the scars from my own service as a young man. I still remember seeing the airborne wings on my recruiter’s uniform and asking him what they were for. His response was something along the lines of, “That is where the real men go – to airborne school.” That was all it took. Then, of course, there were the 4-mile rucksack runs conducted every Thursday at Fort Bragg back in the early 90s. The fun didn’t stop there. Paratrooper parachutes are designed to get you to the ground as quickly as possible without (hopefully) killing you. That pounding took an incredible toll on my knees. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the blood clot followed up by a pulmonary embolism. I could go on, but sufficed to say twenty years in the US Army is like 40 years of civilian life and this is being conservative.
Luckily for me, when I retired, I was able to get my care at the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs). I remember one of my first trips to the VA hospital. After watching the news with my wife, we then spoke of the atrocious quality of care per the news reports just a couple years before. Of course, there was no way possible that the VA medical system could still be such a mess, right? After all, the President made it his personal goal to fix the problem.
I went into the clinic for my initial appointment. While the clinic was old, it was clean and the receptionists were nice enough. My initial thoughts were that the news reports were clearly blown out of proportion. I went back to a room where two nurses came in turned and asked me the exact same litany of questions. I couldn’t understand why I would have two nurses ask me the same series of questions, but didn’t really give it too much thought. That was until I saw the doctor and she asked me the exact same series of questions. I am a big believer in efficiency (primarily because I am lazy and want to find the simplest way to accomplish a task) and busy work makes my blood boil. With a waiting room full of people, I had to ask the doctor why she was wasting my time asking the exact same series of questions when I gave the same answers to BOTH of the nurses…twice. I was told that she needed to put the information into a separate computer system. I am not typically one to bite my tongue but my wife was with me and quickly locked me down with the, “You know who is in charge here.” However, that look quickly turned to disbelief when we started going through my medications. The doctor, who had never seen me or even received the results from my blood work yet, started to explain to me that they were taking me off the medications I used for years, because the medications I currently used were not in VA system yet. My wife, who comes from a long list of nurses in her family, immediately started doing the research to compare the medications. Not surprisingly, the medications the VA doctor chose were all 20+ years old and most often replaced by doctors with newer medications which have fewer side effects and better results. When she inquired as to this, the doctor essentially said that they would just have to experiment with what was in the system to see if we could find something that worked. “Experiment with medication,” is not a phrase we took lightly and I was not willing to experiment with my health.
We requested to switch from the clinic to the actual VA hospital to see if the care would be any better. I remember waiting for approximately one month for a specific appointment at the hospital. I called the hospital the day before my appointment to ensure that this was to see a specialist, which was confirmed for me. This was important because I had to take time off work and it was an hour drive. When I arrived, I was then informed that the appointment was in fact just my initial appointment to register me into the system. I was slightly shocked and angered. This was simply an updated version of the, Ask the Same Questions Game, that I played the first time I went to see a VA clinic. I asked why I would need to have a second initial appointment when they should have just transferred my records. I was told that I didn’t need to have another appointment, but they thought I just wanted to do another general checkup. When I asked about the fact that I called the day before to verify the purpose of my visit it was explained to me that the person I spoke with probably didn’t understand what I was asking about, as my visit was in regards to a new VA program, so they simply readily agreed with what I was asking. Of course, that was nothing compared to my frustration when I showed up to my appointment the second time to find out that the person I was supposed to see was on vacation.
Of course, none of that compares to the numerous appointments that I missed because they were scheduled, but not communicated to me. My favorite was when I would get a notification in the mail for an appointment that had been scheduled for the week before.
Unfortunately, none of this matters. My story is far from unique, and is really quite tame compared to many who need serious care. In my case, I truly am lucky. Thankfully, I am able to keep a form of my military health insurance, one of the benefits from completing twenty years of military service and retiring. I would rather front the copays for my visits to the doctor using my military insurance to ensure I am receiving the best care possible. The same can be said of my medications. What absolutely blows me away is this – How can both TriCare and the VA be federally run medical programs that both care for the same core group of individuals yet, not have access to the same drugs? Why is it that our warriors are only offered outdated medication through the VA and the system?
Americans, generally, have no care or concern for the veterans of this nation. I wish that I felt differently, but it is a sad truth. The same can be said for the military in general. While most civilians will go up to a veteran and say, “Thank you for your service,” once that veteran is out of sight they no longer register anything about them. I am not blaming them. Since WWII, we have not really had any reason to recognize what our modern-day Spartan Warriors do. There is no mandatory rationing, no wartime economy. People do not go out and purchase war bonds or watch snippets of what these men and women in uniform endure before their matinee movies. At most, we may see a 30 second segment on the evening news reporting the death of five soldiers by a roadside bomb or the injuring of three service members during enemy engagement in Where-ever-stan. This lack of concern has nothing to do with ill will or malice intent, it is a basic apathy. I believe that much of this apathy is born out of an inability to conceptualize the physical and mental scarring that take place for many of these men and women serving this country and protecting its freedoms. It might even be out of shame; shame that they enjoy the freedoms that others paid for. I can only postulate on these reasons.
As long as we, as a country, care more about pop culture than about our wounded warriors nothing will change. Ask the average millennial which media icon recently went for a stay in a mental health care unit and I can almost guarantee you they will know the answer. Ask the average millennial to name a disabled vet from any wartime action and 98% would just stare at you.
This problem and condition is nothing new. The same happened after WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. As a nation, we pay lip service through the Veterans Affairs, but beyond that surface the substance is significantly lacking if not completely hollow. Until the people demand change through the power of their vote, nothing will change. It is only through the will of the people and the use of their right to vote, that anything will be accomplished. The government lacks the ability and resolve to hold itself accountable. Regrettably, this harsh reality extends to those men and women, those warriors, those willing to protect, fight and die for this country and those who bear the scars from the battles, who need quality care and are not receiving it.
Matthew Wadler is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and U.S. Army Veteran. Matt served in the Army for 20 years as both enlisted and officer before retiring. His service includes time as Military Police, Field Artillery, Adjutant General, and Recruiting. His deployments include Somalia and two tours to Afghanistan. His formal education includes a master’s degree in HR Management. He is a strong supporter of the constitution and advocate for the military and Veteran communities.