My VHA Experience

 Joshua Wilder Oakley

My name is Joshua Wilder Oakley. I am a disabled Army veteran. I joined the Army when I graduated high school and became a medic. I got my expert field medic badge -the hardest badge to get in the Army — when I was still a private. I was really, really good at being a medic and a soldier.  Then everything changed in an instant. When I was 21 years old and stationed in Hawaii, an artery burst in my right lung. During the procedure to deal with the problem, surgeons went through my femoral artery to cauterize the bleeding vessel. I was left in excruciating pain from which I still suffer. The Army’s docs gave me heavy, heavy narcotics.  I took upwards of six OxyContin every eight hours and four to six Vicodin’s or morphine every four hours.  The Army doctor told me “oh you’re fine, you won’t become an addict.” I was finally medically discharged from the Army.

When I was discharged I was told me very little, if anything, about the VA or the benefits to which I was entitled. When I went to the VA in Hawaii in 2000 for the first time because I was sick, I was terrified that I would be stuck with a hospital bill.

I tried to go back to school, I had trouble concentrating though in a traditional academic setting and struggled. I finally went to culinary school and became a chef.  Because of my military experience, I felt comfortable in the stressful, high- paced, macho environment of the restaurant kitchen. Problem was, I was haunted by nightmares and pain, chronic pain.  The only way I knew how to deal with that was to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.

Maybe in about 2011 or 2012, I got a job at a restaurant that didn’t provide health care benefits and I started going to the VA.

I never saw a doctor about the pain. I tried to get as far away from it as possible.  If I went to the VA for a physical problem, I didn’t reveal my drinking, nightmares, or emotional problems.  Why should I?  I was a high functioning, successful chef, working in some of San Francisco’s best restaurants. In 2012, I had an injury to my foot.  One day I was fine, and then the next day I felt like I had stepped on a needle.  My foot ballooned up like a watermelon, and I was fired from my job. I was reliving the trauma I had experienced in the Army and I fell into a deep depression, I didn’t know which way was up or down, I didn’t care if I lived or not. I was referred to a pain clinic for my chest and my foot.  I met with a physical therapist twice a week and had the first of many nerve blocks, which allowed me to walk again.  With the help of my physical therapist, we got the pain down and I got through the depression.  I went back to work.  Trouble was, while I’d dealt with the pain in my foot and chest, I hadn’t dealt with the psychological problems with which I’d been plagued for years.  Over the next few years my life got darker and darker as I became more and more consumed with my demons, until, finally, I hit bottom. I lost my career, my home, my friends and my dogs.  I had the choice of the streets or checking myself in for help.

That’s when I began the VHA journey that saved my life. The VA sent me to detox to dry out.  I was enrolled in outpatient care, as well as in outpatient rehab for substance abuse.  I was finally, after 15 years diagnosed with PTSD. It was such a relief to know that I hadn’t been crazy, that there was really something that had been wrong with me. We met three times a week.  Anything I needed they were there.  I lived in a clean and sober house and connected with the amazing veterans advocacy group Swords to Plowshares.  I was able to get a service rating for PTSD that went from 30% to 80% and I also received monetary compensation.

I received intensive Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for my PTSD, and went to the pain clinic for pain.  All of this has given me a way to cope without using drugs or alcohol.  I still have pain but the pain doesn’t control my life.  Most importantly, I learned that I could not recover while working in the cutthroat kitchens of San Francisco. With the help of the VA, I have been able to find the courage to do with my life what I had always wanted to do, formalize my education, and become a professional artist.  Thanks to the VA’s Vocational Rehab program, I was able to go to City College of San Francisco to finish my general education requirements, with a 4.0 GPA.  This Fall, I am transferring to the University of San Francisco to pursue my Bachelors in graphic design.

At City College, the VHA has established a Veterans Resource Center and Lounge that has been amazingly helpful.  Dealing with community college councilors outside the Veterans Resource Center, you’re just a number.  At the Vet Center, I see the same councilor and she remembers me and gives me a hug, There’s a real sense of community.  For me, it’s come full circle.  I have the comradery of being in the army with people with whom I share common experiences.  I have found that with veterans I have never known, we all share a semblance of common experience.  We get it.

I tried private sector health care and it didn’t work for me.  Without the VA I don’t know where I’d be.  Well, on second thought, I guess, I do.  I’d be dead.

Joshua Wilder Oakley ~ 39 ~ Army Medic between 1996-2000,