Over a decade ago, while I was still on active duty, I received a phone call from a retired colonel asking for my help. I recognized his name immediately because his was such a tragic story.
In 1982 he departed Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, on a training mission in his F-111. Immediately after lifting off the ground the aircraft “departed controlled flight.” That’s the standard Air Force phrase that means the plane didn’t want to fly right-side up. After five minutes of trying to save the aircraft the colonel decided the situation was hopeless and ejected the crew capsule, which should have delivered him and his weapon system operator safely to terra firma. The colonel’s day started bad, but ended worse.
On the bottom of the capsule was an air bag of sorts that was supposed to cushion the impact with the ground. It didn’t inflate, so the capsule slammed into the hard volcanic rock of the Snake River Valley. The impact was so violent that the crew seats inside were dislodged and both airmen broke their backs. The colonel received a serious spinal cord injury that rendered him a paraplegic.
He called asking me for help because the Veterans Administration (VA) had declined his claim for benefits because, to paraphrase, “there was no evidence that his injuries were service connected.” Keep in mind that this was 20 years after the crash and that during the bulk of that time he was already being treated by the VA for his injuries.
In the colonel’s case, some nameless and faceless bureaucrat that had never looked him in the eye or even spoke to him on the phone had denied his claim for additional benefits because a 20-year old document had not been completed quite right. Fortunately for the colonel, we were able to provide dozens of documents to describe his well-known and highly publicized incident. But what about the events that happen to lowly E-3s who know so little about the system that they don’t know how to advocate for themselves?
Last month Charles Ingram, a 51-year old Navy Veteran, passed the level of frustration that almost all veterans feel and reached a point of desperation. He walked nine miles from his home to the Northfield, New Jersey, Community Based Outreach Clinic. By some reports, he doused himself in a flammable liquid, assumed the position of attention, and immolated himself.
I didn’t know Charles. I don’t know if his mental health issues caused this or if feeling abandoned by the VA exasperated his mental health issues and pushed him over the edge. However, I have been around the system long enough to recognize the story.
For six years all of my healthcare needs have been received at small VA clinics, like the one we have here in Bangor and the one where Charles Ingram ended his life. In dozens of visits, only once have I felt I was treated poorly. The dedicated healthcare providers who have to look all of us Veterans in the eye on a daily basis are largely outstanding compassionate people. Getting an appointment can be slow at times, but once I am in the office I have always felt cared for.
I cannot give the same glowing recommendation to the VA employees who don’t have regular face-to-face contact with the people they are supposed to help. They make arbitrary rules that make it harder for the service-providers at the clinics and elsewhere to actually provide care. Their attitude is personified by the legendary VA phone system. Ask your local veteran about this experience. If my bank was as unfriendly, impersonal, and inefficient as the standard VA helpline I can promise you that I would find a new financial institution to do business with. Unfortunately, the VA is the only game in town for Veterans.
When we are treated as just another one of Uncle Sam’s discarded broken toys we have nowhere else to go. The feeling of further isolation, rejection, and hopelessness is guaranteed to aggravate any mental health condition.
If you have a Veteran in your life who is reliant upon the VA for their healthcare, do not let them be alone. If someone in the VA tells them no or turns them away, encourage your Veteran to advocate for themselves and talk to someone else. There is a Patient Advocate program in the VA. Use it! If you don’t get results there, then contact me and I’ll be your veteran’s advocate. If I can’t win the fight, then I will find someone smarter and stronger who can.
Unlike some of the VA bureaucrats out there, I love to sit down with a Veteran and look him or her in the eye.