PTSD Spirituality: Is the Veterans Administration (VA) Good or Evil (or Both)?

In terms of PTSD in particular and veterans care in general I hear from a lot of veterans  about the Veterans Administration (VA) .  It seems the VA has a lot to answer for in how it treats our nation’s military veterans.  Regular readers of the PTSD Spirituality blog know that I have had difficulty with how the VA treats veterans.    Yet the VA has done some good things for vets as well as having let vets down.  Let’s look at the Good, Evil, Past and Future of the VA.

The Good Done by the VA: Usually when I hear good things about the VA from veterans, it is from Vietnam era veterans.  When they speak about the VA in positive terms it is usually in regards to non-PTSD medical care.  I have rarely heard good things about the VA in terms of their PTSD care from a Vietnam era veteran. 

And, while it is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the VA, I have not ever heard complaints from Vietnam era veterans about their VA backed home loans or their GI Bill educational benefits.  So we will chalk these up as positives, albeit silent ones.

The sad fact is that if I limit myself to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, I have never been told a good news story about the VA.  I am sure that some of them are out there, but they have not crossed my path.  If there are, I would like to hear them.

Potentially good, is that the VA in the last year seems to be waking up to the need for PTSD and substance abuse programs geared to the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran.   I say “potentially” because we need to see how it plays out.

Another potential good is that processing time for claims no longer exceeds two years on average as it did only a year or more ago.

The Evil Done by the VA:  For World War II, Korea, and Vietnam veterans, the evil done by the VA includes systematically using too much radiation in radiology procedures that would have cost a civilian hospital its operating license.  This has not happened at every VA hospital, thank goodness.  Another evil is the string of botched prostate operations that were tolerated and the doctors were allowed immunity.  Again, not at every VA hospital, but a civilian doctor would have lost his license.  We ought not to allow our veterans to be used this way.

Regardless of the era, the VA perpetrated an evil by its mishandling of sensitive identity information for hundreds of thousands of veterans.  Essentially, lax security enforcement allowed the information to be stolen.  What really galled was the “accidents happen” attitude of the previous VA Secretary concerning the stolen data.  Thank goodness, he is no longer representing veterans!

For Iraq and Afghanistan veterans the VA has committed evil by turning away suicidal vets with PTSD who finally came to the hospitals for help.  Some of these veterans, turned away without anymore hope, went on to kill themselves.  There are also cases where at least one doctor admitted he was told not to diagnose PTSD because it could lead to the government having to pay a monetary claim.  This confirms what some of us feel: that the government would have preferred we had been killed instead of wounded or injured and entitled to disability compensation.  That way they could have paid the insurance once, instead of the health care and disability payments.

Currently the VA has let down thousands of veterans by promising that their GI Bill payments would be ready in time to attend college.  Thousands of veterans have been forced to either leave school, borrow, or exist on the charity of their college, while they await the VA to process their educational benefits.  In many cases these are not new claims, they are established cases, already approved.  The vets are told they will just have to wait and there is nothing they can do.  This is the wrong attitude.

The VA screwing up educational benefits, in some cases again and again with the same veteran, may not be immediately understood as a life and death issue.  But in the case of a PTSD trigger it is.  Having the VA promise the money would be there, benefits paid for tuition and stipend, and then not pay them will cause anxiety to people who are already soul wounded by PTSD.  This persistent treatment by the VA, especially VA staff showing indifference to veterans and their families, will magnify PTSD. 

Just ask youself this question: Would I find it stressful if I suddenly learned I would not be able to pay my bills becauise the money owed me is locked in administrative limbo?  What would you tell your bank or land lord?  How would you feel when the voice on the phone (only available three days a week!) says there is nothing you can do and then hangs up…welcome to the VA!

The Past Included Defensive and Angry Responses: I remember attending a PTSD event where a film was shown that highlighted the poor treatment received by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at the hands of the VA.  They were not isolated cases. 

The VA representatives became very angry that veterans spoke negatively about their VA experiences. 

The VA staff could not object to the accuracy or truthfulness of the veterans’ reports, they just were angry that the stories were told.  I heard their verbal comments and I read their written comments.  Not a one of them offered an apology on how the veterans were treated or even ventured to offer a reason why the vets were neglected.

The Future Under Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki:  I have been impressed with the efforts of our new Secretary for the VA, Eric Shinseki.  He is a former Army general who had the courage to testify before the invasion of Iraq that we would have to have a couple hundred thousand troops to serve as an occupation and stabilization force.  The White House under the previous Administration and then Sec. of Defense Rumsfeld were furious at his candor and he was soon forced to retire.  History tells us how wrong the Cheney White House was and no one believes that Rumsfeld’s “Technology First, Solider Last” program won any wars.  While wars are awful things, I am grateful Mr. Gates is our current Sec Defense.

The VA under Shinseki has shown immediate improvements.  The “accidents happen” mentality is no longer heard from the top.  Waiting periods have been reduced for processing of claims, but the length is still way too long.  The current Congress is – believe it or not – to be applauded for providing better funding for veteran’s care than the previous Congress’s of the last decade.

The question remains if General Shinseki will be able to motivate the rank and file at the VA, who will get paid if veterans receive their health care or benefits checks or not.  He is improving the VA, but it has to be faster if we are to save lives and gain confidence in the VA.

When the wars were declared and soldiers and marines were called to active duty they were not able to say, “I’ll process my deployment orders in 9 months – See you THEN!”  They were required to deploy immediately.  If we expect immediate deployment commitments from our troops, then the VA should be able to process claims in less than a year.

Is “EVIL” Too Strong a Term?  You tell me!  I used the term “Evil” describing how the VA has harmed veterans, sometimes leading to the suicide of the veteran.  Should I have used a softer term?  Is to call it evil too strong a term? 

Have I known some good people at the VA? Yes.  Is the system still letting us down and causing harm? Yes.

I do honestly believe the current version of the VA is improving and they are less indifferent to the lives of our men and women who served.  Yet, they still fail veterans, just not as many as they used to.  We need a better standard than that.

I frequently apologise for the behavior of Roman Catholics and some other Christians.  When I talk with someone who has been harmed by a priest, I usually apologise.  It won’t take away the fact they were raped or molested, but it helps them start to heal and maybe even trust again.

It would help us heal, and maybe begin to trust again, if the VA apologised to all of the veterans it has harmed or otherwise neglected.  If you have been helped or harmed by the VA, feel free to mention it in the comments section.

Semper Pax, Dr. Z

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