If you’re a veteran, “now” means a 273-day to 2-yr wait to process a disability claim. I will never forget the night I got a deeper sense of what this means. It was a round-table discussion with the local VA (Veterans Affairs), “to tell them what you think.” I assumed my invitation was a mistake because I’m a civilian. But the host felt my perspective might add something. The event was in December 2012 but news reports in the past week made me relive it.
Attending this discussion was myself, a gentleman from the VA, and the following retired service members: 1 Marine, 1 Sailor, 1 Airman, and 2 Soldiers. Only one of the vets was female. We started going around the room sharing stories. Each one had a red-tape ordeal. Then it was the female vet’s turn, “No one here is going to like my story.” She told me to speak before her and she’d go last.
My 2 cents
“These delays can influence whether a family thrives or even survives.”
I told him about a family I had helped. The dad came home from Afghanistan with TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) He could not hold down a job without medication and therapy. While waiting for his claim, the family burned through their savings. Finally, his benefits kicked in. But by this point, they couldn’t afford the gas to get to the doctor’s appointments located more than an hour’s drive away. After they pawned their wedding rings, they approached one of the charities I volunteer with to ask for donations to pay for gas.
“After all their service and sacrifice, why are our veterans turning to people like me? They should not have to rely on the kindness of strangers.” I wondered how many families were torn apart the by emotional, financial and physical stress.
I also told him I suspect he’ll be getting more vets than he thinks in the coming years. One of my troops was given sleeping pills for a few days after his buddy committed suicide. That’s it. Many troops fear that going to therapy will negatively impact their careers. I was told once, “If you’ve got to choose between two guys with equal credentials and one can handle things and one has been in therapy, who you gonna pick?” So if troops that need help don’t get it during their service, what kind of shape do you think they’ll be in coming out?
The female vet
She had been raped while deployed. Her attempts to get help through the VA were not positive experiences. So she walked away and never went back.
When she started speaking, I think we collectively held our breath for a moment. Her story was hard to hear. But she told it with grace and courage to this group of mostly men. Sometimes her voice or body trembled, but she had a fierce determination to not be defined by or ruled by this event or it’s aftermath.
As you would hope, the response from all was respectful, supportive and caring. The VA administrator was very moved and felt terrible that she was not able to get help at the VA. He clearly wanted to make things right.
Under the lights
The meeting ended and we all left. Outside, the female vet was waiting at the crosswalk for the light to change. Two of the other vets and myself were walking past and we all paused for a moment to chat about the meeting. I said to her, “You know what you did back there, right?” She shook her head no.
I told her, “You braved the pain to share your story with someone who has the power to change things. He’ll go back to the VA and tell others who can affect change as well. That means that any woman who has had this horrible experience will never go through what you did. She will be treated better. She will get what she needs to heal. And on behalf of those women and the families who love them, I thank you. Thank you for your courage.”
We both got teary, she opened her arms and we hugged good-bye. Then we went our separate ways into that December night surrounded by the brightly colored lights and happy wishes of the holiday decorations all around us.
© Gina left the mall, 2013