Thursday, February 22, 2007

Why do we keep screwing our Veterans over?

It's sad.

Pathetic really.

It takes numerous high profile news stories to shed significant light on the health care surrounding our nations Veterans.

A month ago, Jonathan Schulze, a young Marine originally from Stewart, committed suicide after being denied access by persons at the VA Medical Center in St Cloud.

An investigation is ongoing as we speak. Unfortunately, I remain positive that it will be handled in the same manner as previous issues with our Veterans where the VA and its cronies abide by a strict policy of "Don't look, don't find, don't pay."

Letters to the editor poured into the SC Times and other media outlets, calling the suicide of the young Marine a rare occurrence. Many stated that they had great health care coverage at these VA Centers.

I don't doubt that. Without hesitation, I know that the medical professionals at the VA centers do the best they can with the resources that they are given. They do care about our Veterans. The problems at the VA and other military hospitals is not an indictment against them. In fact, in spite of funding cuts, these medical professionals do a remarkable job with our Veterans.

I thank all of you for your service to our troops and Veterans.

The case at Walter Reed is disturbing to me, words cannot capture my outrage. If this can happen at the crown jewel of military hospitals, it can happen anywhere.

Truth be told, we have a lot of Building 18's out there. Buildings where our Veterans rest and recuperate in moldy and varmint infested government facilities. The most egregious cases have been reported just miles from the marble and granite palaces where Michele Bachmann and other politicos publicly state their support for our troops.

Ironically, this same floor is where they cut their benefits. It's where they decide to close VA hospitals. And it's the same floor from which they propose to send more troops to Iraq.

Many read the recent Washington Post stories and for them, it was the first time that they had heard such tales. Stories of bureaucracy, incompetence, neglect, waste, fraud, and abuse.

Unfortunately, for Veterans, these stories are all too common. I did a significant amount of public speaking a few years ago on Veterans issues. One of my colleagues, Chris, is a 1990-91 Gulf War Veteran. We spoke together a lot.

Chris was an Infantryman in the 82nd Airborne. He finished his tour in Kuwait/Iraq in 1991 near An-Nasariah, where his Infantry unit stopped as the ground war ended.

Chris and his unit stayed in this location for nearly two weeks, pulling security on a route that could be a main supply route from Central to Southern Iraq. Daily, even after the war ended, Chris spoke of Air Force jets that would bomb munitions bunkers in his area. His best guess was that they were trying to destroy everything Iraq's military possessed.

Chris showed pictures of the large explosions that were just a few miles away from him. He told stories of how no matter how much him and his soldiers slept, they were always tired. He could literally sleep 20 hours a day. The combat medics with them attributed it to combat exhaustion, stress and depression.

Six years later, Chris got a letter from the VA. It told him he "may have been exposed to Sarin Gas near An-Nasariah in 1991." It told him to go to the nearest VA Medical Center with this letter to be evaluated.

Little did he know, it would start an 8 year fight with the VA.

I met Chris in 2001, after I came off of Active Duty. We shared many interests and our time on Active Duty as Infantrymen. As the drumbeat for war became louder, Chris and I began to work harder to tell people about what happens to our Veterans after wars. We spoke on college campuses, schools, and other places across the state on these issues. Chris, spoke of Gulf War Syndrome specifics. I spoke of issues around Depleted Uranium munitions and a history of what our nation does to its Veterans.

We were a very effective team.

But many years of fighting the bureaucracy took its toll on Chris. You see, Chris not only suffered the physical impact of being exposed to a chemical agent, he experienced the mental anguish of fighting for his own benefits.

Chris and I were two of many Veterans that were threatened with arrest at Congressman Kennedy's old office in St Cloud, after he had touted his strong support for the troops and screwed over more veterans with a vote to cut benefits.

There were many nights when the phone would ring at 3 am and Chris would need someone to talk to. Some nights, I drove up to St Cloud to make sure he was alright. More than once myself and other Veterans had to infiltrate his barricaded small St Cloud apartment because Chris was having a PTSD flashback.

Some at the St Cloud VA said he was faking it. He was lying. He has pre-existing conditions. Going through a series of 22 physical appointments when the mental trauma was not being addressed was a stressful experience for those of us that surrounded Chris. Imagine what it did to him. Everytime he had a mental breakdown, the VA told him he would have to start his appointments over again.

One day it was because his first test was "outdated".

Then it was lost paperwork.

Excuse after excuse ensued, and the Veteran got screwed.

In late 2004, Chris finally got his VA disability and does some work in New Mexico now as a social worker. He does some great work for Veterans in the Southern United States now.

The stories that have hit recently about the St Cloud VA and now Walter Reed, are not rare occurrences. They may not be the everyday story that gets attention in the main stream media, but they are not rare by any stretch of the imagination.

Where is the accountability? While the stories are all similar, Walter Reed and other military hospitals fall under a different jurisdiction than VA medical centers. Walter Reed falls under the Department of Defense, the Commander in Chief.

Remember a few years ago when Abu Ghraib occurred? General Janis Karpinski became the scapegoat. Many called for her to be relieved of duty and some called for a Court Martial. The actions of her soldiers were absolutely despicable and many of them have been punished under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

VP Cheney comes out and bashes Democrats yesterday because of our newest plans for Iraq. Where were the Republicans and VP Cheney when Building 18 was being run down? Surely the conditions did not denigrate to the state they are in today in the past 50 days Democrats have had control of Congress.

It starts with accountability. From day one, there has been little of no accountability when it comes to Iraq. How many billions of dollars is missing now?

Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, commander at Walter Reed, should be relieved. If General Karpinski can be threatened with Courts Martial for mistreating the "enemy", what's the punishment for mistreating 700 of our own?

Senator's Snowe and Obama will offer legislation soon to try to keep this from happening again.

That's fine and dandy really. Why do we need legislation to take care of our Veterans, our soldiers?

Republican's love to tout their support for our troops. They called us Democrats out for a "cut and run" strategy. What have they done for our Veterans, other than create more of them?

It saddens me and motivates me in the same breath. Only a few of us walked door to door and spoke to people about Veterans issues this past campaign cycle.

Legislation is great. But now it's time to put our collective words to action.

Who will stand with our Veterans and not use them for props in a campaign speech?

Who will go beyond putting the yellow ribbon on their SUV and support the Veterans, our troops?

What about all those "vote values" voters? Are these values in congruence with your actual actions?

This is indeed a call to action. Volunteer at the VA. Volunteer with other Veterans groups. Call your elected officials and express your outrage at what is happening to our Veterans.

Or, you can sit their and say you support our troops and allow Walter Reeds and SC VA Medical Center cases to fester.

It's your choice.

No comments: