I served 30 years in a combination of Active and Reserve duty in the Army. My last 2 years were a culmination of both my training and the punishment my body had taken after all those miles of road marches and all those relentless push-ups. In order to send me to Iraq at age 52, the Army chose to re-train me at Fort Bragg, North Carolina to become a Civil Affairs officer. This included field exercises and a twelve-mile road exercise in full combat uniform, which equals approximately 40 pounds not counting the weight of a weapon. Then, I traveled to Fort Dix, New Jersey where I joined up with my Civil Affairs Functional Specialty Team. We spent about 6 weeks going through classes, exercises, combat simulations and weapons qualifications.
We deployed to Iraq in 2009 and spent the next 10 months working at Camp Victory, Baghdad. I was a staff officer. I didn’t go on patrols or on fire missions, but we did have to travel armed into the Green Zone and we were subject to random missile attacks. One occurred on New Year’s Eve. I had to throw my body armor over my head and run to a bomb shelter which injured my shoulder. I was also exposed to the bad air conditions and a toxic battery fire that burned for at least 24 hours a few miles from my building and Container Housing Unit. I developed asthma. The doctors in Iraq said they thought it would go away a few months after I arrive home. It didn’t. I have had to take asthma medication daily ever since.
When I arrived back at Fort Dix, I was held over from returning home because of my shoulder injury. This was when I experienced the worst bureaucratic nightmare. The US Army kept me at Fort Dix with no treatment for six weeks. I was finally transferred to a home based warrior transition unit, still 80 miles from my home in California. I could go home and get the surgery I needed as long as I reported to the unit and completed their paperwork requirements.
One of the requirements was that I apply for a VA disability rating. Having already had many, many medical tests and my complete medical records, with my Line of Duty paperwork completed, I was quickly scheduled by the VA closest to my home, for my medical evaluation. They didn’t just evaluate my shoulder and asthma conditions, they did a thorough medical history and evaluated the long term damage that had taken place to my joints after years of running and marching. Within about six weeks I had my 60% rating in writing and they told me to schedule an initial appointment to see a Primary Care Physician as soon as I was released from Active Duty.
Once again the Active Army let me down, promising to keep me on Active Duty until my recovery was complete, but when my mandatory retirement date came, they gave me about a weeks’ notice that they had not filed for an extension and that I was going to be cut off from all military services and medical support.
Luckily the VA was right there to take over. I was given a great Primary Care Physician at the VA Palo Alto, and they immediately re-issued my prescriptions and scheduled any follow up appointments and regular medical appointments I needed. I was sent to Stanford for Mammograms, at no cost to me, and referred to the Women’s Health Center and given any information I might need for medical and psychological support I wanted.
More importantly for me, my disability payment started the first day of the month after my Active Duty orders ended.
So, my VA experience was outstanding, especially given the poor treatment I received from the military. I suspect that a large percentage of young soldiers that have problems with the VA disability system also stem from the inefficiency and poor processes by the military transferring paperwork to the VA, but to them it is all one big mess, so it is just as easy to blame the VA.
I have been happily receiving all my care from the VA since 2010. I have the same great Primary Care Provider.
Until the Choice Act appeared to muddy up the waters, I had no problem being referred to Stanford for anything that the VA Healthcare System could not offer me. Once the Choice Act started, I was given the phone number to call to schedule a mammogram. They told me they did not have my information and would have to get back to me in a week or so. I called Stanford and they scheduled me the next day. About 3 weeks later I got a letter in the mail with an appointment for a mammogram somewhere in San Jose, on a specific date and time; I was not even consulted. I called and told them to cancel it, but I got a call from the clinic asking why I didn’t show up.
I look at friends in their late fifties who have never been in the military. They are very concerned about how they are going to be able to afford healthcare when they retire. I am so happy that I have the VA. I also have friends that are already only able to afford Medicare, they share the problems they have had just finding a doctor that would take Medicare. So when I am told that the possible result of privatization of the VA would be to ‘allow’ me to go to any doctor that takes Medicare, I am very concerned. The idea that I would have to go out and find my own doctor, and then coordinate any specialty care and re-introduce someone to my military medical history, and hope that they understand because they may have never treated any other veterans, scares me. I hope it never comes to that.