- The Price of Dependence
In the early 1990's I was signing out of Ft. Campbell, KY, and there was a person sitting at a small folding table just a few feet before door that led off the base and to where I was going next. I was at the end of my time with the 502nd Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, nine months back from combat in Desert Storm, and at the end of my enlistment. I walked up to the folding table, already kind of looking past it, and the person there asked me about any health problems I'd had while I was in the Army—anything that ached, pained, any injuries, anything I'd been treated for by Army medical personnel. I told him whatever I could recall, thinking that this was some sort of requirement before getting the hell out of there.
Months later, back at home, I started getting letters with appointments scheduled at the nearest VA Medical Center. What I had done at that folding table, it turned out, was file a claim for service-connected disability compensation for all of the ailments I could think of, and now I was to be examined by VA clinicians. I had no idea that it was the start of my relationship with VA benefits and healthcare. [End Page 80]
For a long time while I was working entry-level jobs and studying in college, I had no other option for healthcare than VA. I appreciated it, and hated it too. I take that back—I didn't really appreciate it much. It was dismal, and depressing. I hated going to the facilities, because they were filled with things that reminded me of what I was trying to forget. Drab hallways were filled with military crests and photographs of old battles on the walls, lines to wait in so that I could be placed into other lines. Inevitably thoughts about combat, the friends I hadn't seen in years, and how much I missed both the simplicity and terror of when deployment would start. And that was just getting to the waiting area.
Inside the clinics there was little privacy. Eventually, a physician would come in and review my symptoms. The eight or so medical students standing behind him would nod and peer over his shoulder and take notes, while he examined and palpated and tested my range of motion. When he was done, it was the medical students' turn. It seemed like I was prescribed Naproxen for everything. Literally everything. I'm sure that wasn't really the case, but I know that the treatment options presented to me were so few that I quit going. What was the point, unless I really, really needed more Naproxen?
I very rarely used any kind of healthcare for years after I stopped using VA. I was hit by a car on my bicycle, and refused the ambulance ride because I was afraid of what it would cost. I realized that I really was injured later though, and went to the nearest VA hospital. I was treated for a badly bruised hip, and received a prostate exam from a medical student. I'm not kidding, a prostate exam. I learned something fundamental about VA Healthcare from that experience: you don't get something for nothing.
The best experience that I ever had with VA healthcare, and it was truly the one I needed most, was my care at the Vet Center for "readjustment counseling." I had reached a point where post-traumatic stress was starting to pour out of the seams of the life I was holding together, and a college counselor referred me to the Vet Center for help. The Vet Center wasn't like the regular VA facilities—it had familiar military stuff in the waiting room, but it was also in an old house in a regular neighborhood. And everyone there, clinicians and administrators, related to me as a human being first. I never felt reduced to an example of my disorder, or an inconvenience. A few years after my therapy there, I changed careers and went back to college in order to become...