feelings that stay with you…

natchez trace parkway bridge 2

It was the end of February, almost two years ago. Zach was in Afghanistan. I had been having a lot of problems with my cell phone service. Because of the nature and location of this particular deployment, Zach and I weren’t able to talk with the regularity of the past. We had a brief conversation, brief because of my frustration over the poor connection. The next day Zach called in the very early morning, I think it was still dark outside. He called to say he wasn’t going to be able to call for a while. I knew what he meant. I was half asleep and crank, I’m not a morning person.

I was in school so my days were busy but the nights were always long. It was nearing midnight and I was getting ready for bed. I went to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, washed my hair and just had a feeling. This feeling was compounded by how short I was during my last phone call with Zach. I regretted it. I tried calling him, maybe a dozen times. His phone was off. There was a Pashtun recording on the other end I could never understand. I’m sure it was something along the lines of “This subscriber is unavailable…” I went to sleep. The next morning came and I still hasn’t heard anything from Zach, not even an email. I tried calling him again but there was still no answer. I tried keeping busy but after lunch I called again, and again, no answer.

A little after 3 o’clock that afternoon the company commander emailed the family members to the company to inform us that one of Zach’s soldiers had been shot several times and had to be medevaced (airlifted) to Bagram. I knew it must have been very bad. But what she had failed to mention was whether or not the rest of the people on the team were alright, if Zach was okay. My mind immediately went to the worst case scenario. I knew that if Zach was dead the commander wouldn’t be allowed to say anything until they Army made an in person notification. I imagined that because the injured soldier fell directly under Zach’s supervision so they must have been in close proximity to each other. I thought they were going to knock on my door. At the time I lived in a gated complex and wondered how they would get in.

I tried calling Zach again, but still there was no answer. Every car door slamming shut in the parking lot was piercing. I sat on the couch, looking out the window, waiting, but then it got dark and I couldn’t see anything anymore. Ten hours after I received that email from the commander I got an email from Zach. He was okay. After his soldier had been injured they had to continue on with their mission. By the time they were done he was too tired to do anything but sleep, understandably.

A little over a week ago I was working at my computer with the local news on in the background. The anchor said an unidentified soldier on post was killed that morning at one of the ranges. I immediately realized I hadn’t heard from Zach all day, my stomach dropped, again. I texted him but this time he texted back right away. He was fine.

facades…

wally with brothers

Today is my dad’s birthday, he would have been 67. In five days it will be two years since he died. I hoped that after two years of reflection I would have gained some perspective, but that hasn’t been the case.

Usually, the least important parts of a person’s life are the beginning and the end; it’s the middle, how they lived that truly counts. But when I think of my dad it’s hard not to think of the suffering he endured at the end of his life. He waited 8 months for chemo and he died 8 months after that. One of the last thing he said to me was that he wanted someone to shoot him in the head so the nightmare he was living would end. It’s something that crosses my mind daily and at the same I hear the House of Representatives have voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act again. I remember when Mitt Romney was campaigning a few years ago he said “people don’t die in their apartments because they couldn’t get healthcare.” It makes me angry that people believe that because that is exactly what happened to my dad.

I cringe when even after 13 years of war, people are still war hungry. All of these people fail to realize that 40 years after the Vietnam War has ended veterans and their families are still paying for it. And the wars of my generation will be no different. Forty years from now there will be ripple effects from the wars on terror that we won’t see coming. What price are you willing to pay?

I’m disappointed that we think throwing football games in honor of service members and veterans does anything to actually help them. I’m disappointed that people think watching a movie like American Sniper actually helps veterans. If all of the news about the failed state of the VA didn’t raise awareness a movie or football game won’t either. If all of the people that went to the game or saw the movie took an extra 5 to 10 minutes to reach out to their legislators to tell them to fix the VA maybe 22 veterans wouldn’t commit suicide every day and maybe veterans wouldn’t die waiting for healthcare, either.

I don’t like living in a place where it’s so easy to cast aside people that don’t meet our expectations, whether they are veterans or not. It isn’t someone else’s problem, it’s our problem. I hope that someday instead of remembering my dad’s agony I will only see his cheshire cat like grin and his love for life.

summer comes…

cairo public library

If you follow mainstream national news you’ve probably heard that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned this morning. When he met in front of legislators last week he told them he thought the problems were isolated. That alone has shed light on how out of touch the Secretary was from what has been going on with the health care side of the VA. I don’t think there is one pivotal instance that was a failure on his part, it was all of the little things building up and sticking together. His resignation was met with mixed reactions, many of his supporters have taken it personal, but I think many of them have confused criticisms of system flaws and his leadership as attacks against him as a human being, veteran, and friend. I believe wholeheartedly that he is a good person and always had the best of intentions, but you can’t unring a bell. His resignation alone won’t be enough to fix everything, but I hope the new secretary will be able to implement new standards and change the climate at the VA and move forward with providing veterans the best care available. We can stop bickering about which political party did this or what veteran service organization didn’t do that, it doesn’t matter. The veterans that continue to wait for necessary medical attention matter the most. Additionally, let us not forget the suffering inflicted on veterans and their families that were not fortunate enough to get timely appointments and medical attention and weren’t able to live long enough to see changes to the system.

i don’t want to change the world…

Cairo IL Regime

For the past several weeks there have been countless stories, articles, news segments, tweets and so on regarding the “new” Veterans Affairs scandal that started at the Phoenix VA medical center. The media, various veterans service organizations, and the House VA Committee have asserted that due to secret wait lists and failed leadership some veterans may have died waiting for care. At this time the acting Inspector General has said that the IG has been unable to find a correlation between patients deaths and secret waiting lists at the VA medical center in Phoenix. Since the Phoenix story broke there have been many other allegations made about delayed and denied care at other VA medical facilities. This controversy has renewed calls for VA Secretary Shinseki to resign or be fired.

The emotions this conjures up has made it very difficult for me to articulate my feelings about it all. It’s a double edged sword. It’s hard to say this but I take pleasure in the fact that delays in care at the VA have been brought to light but it reminds me of what my father lost, what I lost, and countless other families, too. People are already pointing and wagging their fingers but no one is standing up to take responsibility for what has happened. I cannot stress this enough, this isn’t a Republican problem or a Democrat problem. It’s a people problem, it’s life and death. It’s also not unfair for the families of the veterans that died because of delayed care to want answers and to have what happened to them acknowledged.

It’s naive to think that the IG will be truly unbiased or independent, it is after all a government agency investigating a government agency. (The IRS wouldn’t let my neighbor/friend audit me even if she was a CPA, right?) Like any government agency (ex. Army unit, County Municipality, IRS, etc…) at any and all levels when possible professional courtesies are extended and covering down happens in order to take care of things at the quietest and lowest levels possible. It is not in the interest of the government to find fault with the VA because of the potential for litigation and the financial burden it could impose.

It doesn’t matter how many veterans the VA puts through college or job training, or how many home loans they process, it doesn’t even matter how many veterans receive great medical care if even one veteran gets left behind.

It’s not just a problem for veterans or their families to carry: Why we need to be shareholders of the VA

in memory…

My dad would have been 66 today, but he died 360 days ago.

HR0136

My dad was not a person without flaws, but in the last 10 years of his life, the person I came to know was a great person. He was an exceptional grandfather to my half-sister’s son. He helped with school projects and walked him to and from school everyday. He loved his family, even though I’m not quite sure they deserved it.

He was an extremely creative person. He was an artist in his own right. He could fabricate replacement parts for antique light fixtures and he could lay the most beautiful patterned wood floors. He liked riding his bicycle to the beach. He loved to garden and watch movies.

He loved being there for his friends. Even while he was sick, he still couldn’t help himself and could be found at the top of ladders cleaning out gutters for neighbors from the old neighborhood. He’d rake their leaves and fix their plumbing.

He was a very humble person, and would never admit to being as smart as he was. He was the life of the party and loved telling jokes. But more than anything, he loved life.

Having been drafted into the Army during Vietnam he became disenchanted with the government and claimed to be apolitical. However, he kept up with all things foreign affairs and military related. He could tell you more about it than anyone else you know.

If you follow Veterans Affairs related news you might have heard about how veterans have been dying because of delayed care. He would never call himself a victim. But I can tell you now that he was a victim of that system. He went to the Jesse Brown VAMC ER in October of 2011 and was told he had cancer and ultimately waited almost 8 months until they began his chemotherapy treatment.

Even though it’s been a year since he died, the sadness is enduring. It’s hard to process something that you can’t rationalize. On a daily basis, I play it all back in my head, over and over again. I can’t make it make sense. Someone once asked me if I thought there was some kind of mistake, I said it was a series of mistakes. He was failed by nearly every doctor he dealt with at Jesse Brown and Hines.

Many VA hospitals are used for teaching medical students, and many of the doctors my dad dealt with were ill equipped students, not yet ready to deal with the complexity of chronic illnesses (ex. agent orange, gulf war syndrome, ptsd, tbi, and cancer). The social workers were just as much of a let down. The only social worker I can think of that actually did their job was the one at Hines that made the arrangements for me to stay at the nearby Fisher House while my dad was a patient there.

I can concede that my dad may have never been cured of cancer, but I’ll never know. The VA did not provide him the chance. I firmly believe that he would not have died February 23, 2013 had they implemented a cancer care protocol more similar to that of the civilian sector.

I’m not really sure why the issue of delayed care hasn’t received more attention. I’ll guess, I’m sorry to say, it’s because legislators like Tammy Duckworth (of my own party) only care about embarrassing and belittling phony veterans with foot pain, receiving government contracts . I’d love to tell her about my dad’s crippling pain. My dad’s cancer ate the bones in his spine, neck, and pelvis while the VA did very little. He reached a point where he could no longer move or speak.

I want to know why legislators like Duckworth don’t take care to focus on more life and death issues like the Legionnaires’ outbreak at the Pittsburgh VAMC, delayed cancer care in South Carolina, hepatitis in Buffalo, or over prescribing of opiates, to name a few.

The VA has had 83 years to figure it out. This can’t be the best we can do for our veterans. To say these problems are not systemic is a fallacy. Delayed care is denied care. Last year, during the height of the claims backlog controversy there was a call for Sec. Shinseki to resign. I couldn’t agree more. There is no one better than him to answer for the shortcomings of the VA and the death they are responsible for.

Does the VA do some good? Sure, they have home loan programs, homeless assistance programs, vocational programs, and the GI Bill. But none of those programs did anything to save my dad’s life. It seems that if you don’t have a service connected disability you probably don’t matter. I’d love to ask Tammy Duckworth where she would be if she had to wait 8 months for treatment when she needed it most.

pretending you’re not it…

ice tree sky

I’m almost speechless at the thought of this week. I’m glad it’s almost over. Undoubtedly, next week will just have new problems. My semester is over. It’s bittersweet. School is all I have here. I could have signed up for the winter session, but I figured I would regret not taking a break. Zach made it to where he was going. We get to talk almost every day, over the phone. The conversations are short. There is no wifi or video chatting, but there is a USO computer that takes so long to load he can’t really check his email. But it’s okay. It will be okay. Because it has to be.

This week the House of Representatives decided cutting pensions of veterans was a good idea. I made the mistake of reading the comments, and it was shocking to see how many people dislike the military and even blame them for some of our financial problems. I think people have a difficult time differentiating between the people at the top and the people at the bottom. It seems like most people have the impression that the lower level people are just sucking the country dry of everything we have. But what people fail to realize is that defense spending is so much bigger than bullets and navy seals. The Military Industrial Complex is so much bigger than the 4 branches of the military. Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly agree that defense spending is wrought with waste and abuse, but it comes from the top and not the bottom. And it’s the bottom that is first to be punished for it.

Perhaps we should have made sure to follow the Powell Doctrine from the beginning.


Richard Slotkin on Guns and Violence

Bill Moyers on the Class War

What it is to See / Reel 2013 from Jake Oleson on Vimeo.

you were in and i was out…

cityscape spfld

I was watching reunion porn (military homecomings) on Nightline a few minutes ago. It made me sad because it reminded me of the things I don’t like about the military or the military community. This particular segment referenced military wives with children and pretty houses missing their spouses. Don’t get me wrong, being separated from someone you care about is difficult. And it’s even more difficult when you know your loved one is often in dangerous situations. I feel like the news would have you believe that somehow because you have children it must be more difficult or because you don’t it must be easier. But that is not the case.

What I didn’t like about the segment is that it was a reminder of being left out. Zach and I do not have children and because of that we or I get left out of a lot of things. In the military, companies have Family Readiness Groups (FRGs), which would have you believe that it is some makeshift family unit. In my experience, it has never been that. They, the FRG, often centers around children, and people with children. And I am not one of them. They also made mention of all the troops coming home and how many are left, but they forgot to talk about the ones that just left, and what they left behind.

We had roughly 5 different deployment dates. Originally, we planned that I would move home after finals and before Zach deploys. But because the date was moved up, he left early. And I am left here. Military life makes it extremely difficult to make or maintain meaningful connections, with new friends and old friends. I’ve been away from home so long now that I’ve missed too many things with my old friends to really be a part of that group anymore. And we just moved here about 5 months ago and I haven’t really met many people. I don’t have anyone. It’s too big of a project to try to move alone.

So, it’s officially Thanksgiving. I’m thankful for my family, to include Monkey, the ultimate battle buddy. I’m thankful to be in college. I’m thankful to have somewhere to live and food to eat. And I know any day we live to tell about is a good day, but I’m still sad.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Kinfolk Saturdays: Flying High from Kinfolk (kinfolk.com) on Vimeo.

Primordial —- Yellowstone / Grand Tetons from Voortex Productions on Vimeo.