Screw the Veterans: My Morning at the VA

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I had an appointment at the VA this morning. I was to see a mental healthcare professional–long overdue if you ask me. I had continued to see my primary therapist in Salt Lake for a few weeks before leaving that fair city in 2013 in the wake of the Adam fiasco but since then, with the exception of doing an “intake” interview with a nurse in New York City (nightmare, another story altogether), I haven’t been seen by anyone in many months. I am 50% service-connected disabled for PTSD. During those months since my last real therapy appointment, I have had about everything that is ever listed on one of those “life’s most stressful events” lists happen to me so I thought it might be wise to check in with the VA. As it turns out, it came at a especially good time since I now have this homophobic redneck (whom I hit on two years ago on a Christmas visit, another story altogether) running around threatening to kill me. I feel like I’m either back at Walker High School or back in Iraq. In both places my life was in constant danger. No interest in going back to either.
So even though the woman at the desk at the Jasper VA informed me that the therapy appointment would be held via videoconference (“You’ve used Skype before, right?”), I figured it’s the best I can do right now given my options. I showed up on time this morning at the clinic, checked in and sat down to thumb through magazines that would tell me how my NRA membership was needed to “finally hold Obama accountable for his lies.”
I hated the conversations I heard in the lobby. I hated that one of the nurses loudly used the word “retarded.” How is that okay? I hated the common (if unspoken) agreement that jingoism will heal whatever ails the veteran.

The clock continued to tick up to and past my appointment time. Five minutes, Ten minutes, fifteen… Finally I’d had enough and I left. It seemed like the better option rather than to sit there getting more and more agitated. I came for help with the anxiety, not fuel for it.
A few minutes after I got home the phone rang. Sure ‘nough, it was the Jasper VA. The man on the other end of the line seemed agitated in his own right.

“Is this Mr. Key?”

“It is.”

“Where are you?!”

“I’m at home.”

“What are you doing at home? You had an appointment at 9:30?”

“Exactly.” I said, “And 9:30 came and went. I was early for my appointment. No one said anything to me about why no one appeared to be ready to see me or even explain why my cyber-therapist was late.”

“Well it would have been nice if you’d let someone know.”

By now I’d passed agitated. I was pissed. I had imagined somehow that with the recent bad press the VA had gotten they’d been more apt to be on their toes. Here was this guy calling to chastise me for being what he considered to be inconsiderate behavior. While maintaining my cool on the exterior, I endeavored to show him what was essentially wrong with this situation and with his presumption.

“Are you really calling to reprimand me for walking out?” I asked. It wasn’t a question he wanted to hear. I’m sure most veterans take this shit cap-in-hand. Not me. Not this time. What I said next put him on the ropes and it was really more for my fellow veterans who have struggled (or died) waiting for VA care and for those who are receiving substandard care everyday.

“Look,” I said, “You are working with a clientele who come from a work environment where being on time is of ultimate importance. In fact, during our entire time in the military we are expected to be one place and then the next ‘fifteen minutes prior’ or we are actually considered to be late. And other than the fact that we will, at the very least, get our asses chewed if we are late, the main reason that we are trained mercilessly to be on time is that it speaks to the grave importance of the mission we’ve been handed. The necessity of our being prompt is actually a reflection of the importance of the mission itself. So to us, the veterans, when you are so clearly unconcerned about how long you keep us waiting very clearly sends us the message that the ‘mission’ of our healthcare is actually not that important. Can you explain to me how keeping me waiting that long was somehow acceptable?”

Now he too was pissed. I was just supposed to shut up and take his tongue lashing. But instead, I’d made him feel like a fool.

“Sir,” the quiver in his voice betrayed his lack of surety, “I actually came out to call you at ten minutes until ten.”

I simply remained quiet for a moment to enjoy his panic as he realized what a weak defense he had offered.

“So what you’re telling me is that that’s good enough for our veterans? Keep them waiting almost a half hour without explanation and that they should just ‘suck it up?’ Is that what you’re telling me?”

“I don’t have any interest in debating this with you!” he screamed. Really? I’m amazed. But you’re so good at it, I thought.
Then he hung up on me.
Really? Really? He hung up on me? Normally, I would have just let it go at that. Nah, who am I kidding? I almost never let that kind of bad behavior go anymore. But I’m especially not going to put up with it from the people who are supposed to be caring for my brothers and sisters in arms. So I called back.
I gave the woman who answered the man’s name, told her that I had just spoken with him and asked to speak to his immediate supervisor.
When the supervisor came on the line, I told the him the story I just told you. He apologized and promised to address the issue immediately. I hung up feeling a mixture of satisfaction that I had stood up for myself and sickening anxiety because I had stood up for myself. This has not been the hallmark of my life to be sure.

I actually hope the guy doesn’t get fired. I doubt he will over my complaint. But it’s simply not okay for this to continue. I understand the VA has a huge and difficult task to accomplish with limited resources but in this case (and I would imagine in a great many) it would have cost absolutely nothing more to do it right!

All this having been said, I’ve actually gotten a lot of help from the VA– especially the Salt Lake VA– and I know there are a lot of people working in that system who do so mostly because they care about the vets. But some big mistakes are still being made, big mistakes with big cost to veterans and their families.
I hope by speaking up today and by writing about it tonight, I can help bring the much-needed changes to fruition. It is long past time.  


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