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VA Problems Far From New

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Message Mary Pitt

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When the Walter Reed Hospital was found to be virtually uninhabitable during the Bush adminstration, due to filth, vermin, and neglect, most Americans thought that would be the end of complaints about the abuse and neglect of the returning veterans. It was, however, no surprise to this writer or to many others who had witnessed problems with the system for many years.

I was the youngest in my family and had seven big brothers, five of whom served in the military during World War II. The older two brothers were married when the war began and so did not serve. Brother #3 had enlisted in the Navy some time before the war and Brother #4 volunteered for the draft the day after Pearl Harbor. Brother #5 was still in his teens and stayed home for a few years to help his mother with a dying husband and three younger children. He did enlist at the age of 19 and went into the Army Air Corps. Shortly after he left, Brother #6 also enlisted in the Air Corps, followed two years later by Brother #7, who went into the Navy.

Brother #5 became a radio man/turret gunner, and was stationed in England. On the first mission by the bomber group, they delivered their load on a German target and turned to go "home." They didn't reach it that day. The bomber took a direct hit and the order was given to bail out over the town of Leone, France. Brother #5 floated down on his chute and landed in a large tree that grew on the edge of town, stopping with a tremendous jerk that jarred his shoes off and damaged his spine.

Several local gendarmes had observed his descent and were waiting for him. Rather than helping him down, they sent a young boy to fetch the Germans. He was taken by the SS officers and, after questioning was locked up and held for several days. He was then loaded into a boxcar with other prisoners and transported to the care of the guards in the Stalag XVII prison camp. He never received any medical care despite the terrible pain in his back. The diet was so poor that all the men suffered from malnutrition. As the Russians neared the camp toward the end of the war, they were marched for many miles as the guards attempted to escape capture by the Russians. They reached the American-controlled area, were "rescued" and, after a time, delivered back to England and, subsequently, home.

Still having time left on his four-year enlistment, Brother #5 was posted to a Florida air base to complete his time in active service. While there, he took his complaints of a "bad belly" to the base doctor. He had survived for a year and a half on boiled cabbage with "maggots for protein," had been liberated weighing 84 pounds, and had trouble dealing with actual people food. The doctor informed him that others with the same problem had learned that "a little beer" would sometimes help with the pain.

Voila! A "little beer" did help the pain a bit, but shots of whiskey made all the pain go away! He rapidly skidded into alcoholism which continued for the rest of his life. As a civilian, he became an accomplished "body and fender man," restoring to beauty totally damaged automobiles and he made a very good living, but the alcoholism took all his resources. He began falling, which aggravated his injured back.

After a couple of decades, he had been married and divorced twice, had been so disabled that he could not work at all for an extended period of time. Since his service-connected disability payments were only $10 a month, he was receiving a stipend from Social Security Disabilty, which provided the barest existence. He became semi-ambulatory and fell frequently, both because of his physical condition and because of his binge drinking to self-medicate his ulcers.

My family and I moved to the same town he lived in so that I could provide him with care. It was not simple, inasmuch as he always had a "good old veteran buddy" who would provide him with liquor on call. The man was once again a walking skeleton just as he was when leaving the POW camp. When I would go out to work in my garden early in the mornings, I could hear him shouting curse words in German between screams of pain.

Life was marked by the trips to the VA hospital a hundred miles away. He would refuse to go unless he had a broken bone or was so debilitated that he could not get out of bed. He would usually be behaving in a drunken condition and that would be the extent of his diagnosis. No matter what we said, he would be dispatched to the detox center and there he would stay until strong enough to be dismissed. On one occasion, he came hom with an obviously-broken rib from a beating by an orderly. On another, the broken arm which took him there for treatment was still broken and had received no attention at all. The bones eventually healed but he lost the use of the arm completely.ã

Meanwhile, as I was filling his grocery list, I would buy an extra-large bottle of Pepto-Bismol and a dozen rolls of Tums. I gave that information to the intake nurse on every hospital visit, but no examination ever took place. I would wager that his medical records would show absolutely no mention of him ever having been treated for ulcers before his last days. Finally, he became unable to get out of bed and refused to go to the VA, so I called an older brother, (due to the family pecking order). That brother was involved in the VFW and knew his way around military things. He called a local doctor who made a house call and ordered him sent to the VA hospital by ambulance.

Older Brother called Senator Bob Dole, whom he had met and, after two weeks in-hospital, Brother #5 was transferred to an Old Soldiers' Home. His general health did seem to improve but, when I visited him, he was sitting in the dining room, a full plate of food in front of him. I told him to go ahead and eat but he demurred. He said that he had drunk all the liquids but could not eat the solids because it "wouldn't get down."

I asked to speak to the head nurse and, once again, told someone of his ulcer problems. She stated that the hospital had been "completely uninformed" of an ulcer problem. The following day, a doctor examined him and found that so much scar tissue had formed inside his esophagus that nothing other than liquid could enter! He was transferred to another VA hospital which could do the necessary surgery. That physician decreed that he was too debilitated to tolerate surgery so a feeding tube was implanted directly into his stomach so he could gain strength. Two days later, I was called by a nurse and informed that he had passed away from pneumonia!

He did receive a military funeral and burial in a National Cemetery but, after his passing, we received a response to the application the older brother had filed for a more adequate pension for him. That document stated that, inasmuch as his disability was caused not by any physical reason but because of alcoholism, which was a "character flaw," and not an illness!

I am neither shocked nor surprised that the present breaches in the VA system have occured. There is no basis for blaming Obama, or Shinseki, or any other individual who tries to step into the breach to "straighten things out" unless it involves delving into the total operations of the entire system regarding not ony an admissions rate but thoroughness and efficiency.

Furthermore, we need a Congress that is more concerned with governance than politics. Failing that, the system is so riddled with a lackadaisical philosopy that, if left unattended by professionals, it will slide right back into "the way we've always done it."

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This writer is eighty years old and has spent a half century working with handicapped and deprived people and advocating on their behalf while caring for her own workung-class family. She spends her "Sunset Years" in writing and struggling with The (more...)
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