The Doctor Will See You Now*

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.

The group 

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

Beating The Odds

I didn’t meet SSgt. RD at a biker rally, elk hunt, gun club or Hooters restaurant. Mostly because I don’t ride, hunt, shoot or want that kind of burger combo. He didn’t meet me in any of my worlds either. Our paths crossed through Cup of Joe, where a civilian can buy a deployed troop a cup of coffee.

I appreciated his service. It meant something to him that I cared. Other than that, we had nothing in common. What are the chances we’d became good friends? Well, I learned that beating the odds was his theme. I learned other things too from “fun” animal facts to something very important. It’s knowledge that may make you want to take action at the end of this post.

Never ask about elk hunting

This should be number two on your list right after, “never cut the blue wire.” Apparently, procuring fresh elk-meat is more hands-on than my online grocery order. As RD described in detail the prepping and dividing of elk amongst the group of men gathered under a large tree, I had visions of an Amish hit squad.

“Gina, you eat hamburgers. Where do you think they come from?”

“My hamburgers are magically formed from cows who die a sudden, natural, painless death in a lush meadow while baby bunnies frolic nearby.”  

Why soldiers fight

When Osama bin Laden was killed, RD made a list of his fallen brothers and put a bottle of Jim Beam on the table. He wanted to do one shot for each buddy. He drained the bottle and passed out before he got halfway down the list.

Whenever RD walks through airport security he lights up like a Christmas tree from the four bullets that couldn’t be removed, the confetti of shrapnel plus the metal rods in his shoulder and spine.

This is a picture of the interior of a vehicle he was riding in. That hole was made by an enemy sniper. RD felt the air around the bullet as it flew just in front of his face.

Interior of MRAP vehicle my soldier was riding in when an enemy sniper's bullet hole.  It just missed him.

He also has PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Once, after a difficult period, he begged his wife to leave him because he thought she could have a better life without him.  She refused.

One day I asked him why he puts his body, heart and mind through all this. Why does he fight?

“You have to understand….we don’t love war, we fight because we love what we left behind…  We do it for our wives and kids, for our friends and family and for their kids, we do it for the guys next to us and their wives and kids… we do it for you Gina.  It’s what’s behind us… is why we fight so hard.

The battle now

No troop I’ve met ever wants to talk about his medals. But I asked RD to please tell me. Among his awards are 2 Purple Hearts, 2 Bronze Stars, and 2 Army Commendations. Now this decorated and dedicated soldier is facing what may be his last battle. He may be forced to retire on medical grounds.

RD loves the Army. With passion and resilience he wants to use his hard-earned knowledge any way he can to benefit his brothers and sisters-in-arms. I don’t know what the odds are once you get to a medical review board. I know he’s doing all he can to continue to be allowed to make a difference as a soldier.

This post is my way of fighting for him. I know the chances are small that one civilian and some blog readers can sway the United States Army. If you would like to fight for RD too, if you want to keep brave soldiers with passion and resilience in our Army, please say so in the comments. As a taxpayer, if you don’t want all that hard-earned knowledge just walking out the door, leave a comment. This way he can share it with the review board. And maybe, just maybe, we can beat the odds together.

*UPDATE- Click here for the update to this story:  When Uncle Sam Breaks Up With You. I  posted on September 18, 2013. Yes, it took that long.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

My Soldier’s Wife

Friends. Family. Total strangers. “My adopted soldier’s wife” doesn’t fall neatly into the usual categories. My situation also wasn’t the norm. The Taliban kept attacking my soldier’s base and knocking out their internet. After a while, I had more contact with his wife than him. And along the way, I learned things worth sharing.

The family also serves

My soldier’s wife is amazing. When we “met” she was a new mom (he missed the birth by two weeks). His deployment was difficult and their contact was limited. He could call her once every 3 days for 15 minutes. Unless his mission took him away for…who knows how long. That uncertainty was her everyday normal. But the everyday resiliency and grace she exhibited was impressive.

She went house-hunting solo (from out-of-state no less). Set up the baby’s room. Handled the bills. Handled everything. I wish I were half as buttoned-up.

I’m sure she had her bad days that she shared with those closest to her. But the part I saw was her taking action. Doing all she could to keep her family thriving. That also meant making him feel as connected as possible to home. Including sending updates and pictures to a total stranger in NYC. I think she didn’t want me to mistake his increasing silence as a sign to stop writing.

If I’m worried…

There was a bad attack in his area. The news named his task force and unit. The military has a communication blackout policy when there are KIAs. I was worried for him. But then I tried to imagine how she felt. That’s the moment I figured out that when a soldier raises his hand to serve, the whole family serves as well. Not just in the scary moments. In the ordinary moments too, where we do most of our living. Imagine going months without the help and support of your loved one. That is just part of what we ask of our military families.

Questions

“Doesn’t his wife mind you writing to her husband?”

SFX (sound effects):  NEEDLE SCRATCHING RECORD

I stopped what I was doing. The beef jerky hovering above the flat-rate box I was packing for him. “What??? He sent me pictures of them together. I’m sure she knows and supports his being adopted and um…um….”

That’s when I decided to assume he was not the only one reading my emails. I’d assume his wife and roommate were too. Not that I was planning on writing anything “bad” anyway. I would just keep the potential audiences in mind. It was a long time before I shared that I’m a single mom. I was a little cautious because I wanted to make sure that nothing I wrote came off the wrong way.

“Doesn’t he have a wife to send him care packages?”

“Yes he does. She’s at home with the newborn he hasn’t met. He’s in firefights in Afghanistan. So should we have her shoulder everything? Do we all get to skip to the park with our kids feeling safe and on the way we’ll yell out- hey you two, thanks for handling that freedom and security thing.”

There was a less sarcastic answer to that question. I just didn’t feel like using it.

The power

I sent my soldier some snacks and included four small water guns. I thought they were funny to send to a sniper. My soldier’s wife wrote that they loved them. They used them to “ambush” a guy on his birthday. She said they’re all really big kids at heart and how it was great that I thought to do that. And what she said next is the reason why I’ve wound up doing things for over 800 more troops.

She told me that they felt grateful and lucky that he got me as his adopter. The thought and effort I put in was making a difference for him. She told me that she felt lucky too and how it made a difference for her.

I thought, I have never met any of these people. But being a total stranger did not in any way stop me from having a positive effect in their lives that day. Even if it was a small thing, it was something good in the face of challenges.  How cool is it that we each have that power? Realizing the impact I was making inspired me to step up and expand my efforts.

I don’t think I ever told my soldier’s wife that she was the reason I started doing more. So I’ll tell her here that she made a difference in my life right back.

© Gina left the mall, 2012