Better Off

I was amazed as I read a mail message from a friend. I had been trying to explain what my experience with the VA had taught me about what steps to take, what evidence was needed and a general idea of what to expect. As I wrote and wrote and wrote email after email, I found that I was having a debate with this person. Literally everything I related to this person was handed back to me with an explanation of why it wouldn’t work for the situation they were in. When I tried to tell them that my situation was different and that they should not expect the levels of assistance I get, I found my words taken as a pissing contest. I came to the realization last night as I was reading my friend’s latest missive, they they were wasting my time. They wanted to have a discussion about how awful the government was and not to learn the easiest ways to get on the VA radar for benefits.

I’m not going to try and help this person anymore. I see no reason. I have a lot of things to complain about when it comes to the VA. Their policies can be and usually are mystifying and nonsensical, but the fact of the matter is that they are helping me, and doing a pretty good job all in all. Sure, I talk here about the things that the VA has done which have been less than comforting. But there is one fact that people seem to miss, and that is that I am still here and spouting my piss and vinegar because the VA was there to help, and help they did. My life is so much greater than it would be without them, that it’s time for me to say a good word about them. Overdue, even.

The VA is a governmental agency. That means that much of what they do and how they do it is convoluted. Governments create procedures and then change them. When those changes create problems, they apply a band aid to fix it that, in its own right, creates even more troubles. But the whole point to the VA is to help veterans, and once you manage to swing through the obstacle course of policy, help is exactly what they do, and they do a better job at it than their private medicine counterparts. VA doctors and administrators are buried in the troubles specific to veterans and the problems they face. Private medicine doesn’t know to look in places that for veterans is commonplace to find problems. For ten long years I spent money I didn’t have going to the hospital for severe pains in the back and chest. I built up such a record of visits that the last private doctors were telling me that my problems were more the province of psychiatry than medicine. They thought it was all in my mind. But then the VA took over. In less than three months they had a bead on my problems and by six months had me started on repairative therapies. But they also did something that private medicine didn’t, they saw to it that I was comfortable. They gave me medications that dealt with my issues, they took care of me.

No, the VA did not cure my cancer. I am still going to die from it and the jury is still out as to when.  But then, I have a very particular kind of Multiple Myeloma that affects about 1% of the MM victims. I am a non-secretor. Then too, I am a non-secretor with a strain of cancer so rare, that I fit into only 1% of the 1% of total MM victims. That means that only .001 of the Myeloma patients in the world manifest similar symptoms and effects of the cancer I’m stuck with. Yet the VA picked it up and worked hard with me to try to  kill it off.  Just as my kind of MM was unusual, so are the sensitivities to drugs in me. I reacted terribly to the chemotherapy drugs I was given. In fact, the treatments nearly killed me on a few spooky occasions.  But all the way through, the people of the VA were on my side and trying the best they could to help me.  True, policies and modus opeandi of the VA was quite often counter-productive. I would take two steps forward and then three steps back. But every now and then a winning move was executed that took me five steps forward for the three back and the net gain was positive.  After all, I am still here when I should have been dead almost two years ago.

So as I am trying to help my friend get involved in the VA and get their journey started, I end up finding myself defending not just the VA, but myself. “You’re well enough that you have been able to go to parties!” my friend railed. I was being told that no one on her side was going to parties because the pain was too great for it. Yes, that’s probably true. But then, they had out of hand rejected the help and care offered by the VA and so no, they aren’t comfortable right now. Unlike me, their prejudice against the VA kept them from getting the help so freely offered. I accepted it. And while I make it a point to bitch and moan over the failings of the VA, I do so only because the VA has me well enough to do it.

I should have been speaking of the positives along the line here as well as the negatives. But negativity is much more powerful than positives are. Of course they are. Negatives trigger every single alert and alarm the body and mind has because of our survival instinct. The pain felt and the thoughts though it all deal in terms of fixing the problem and those things that get in the way of that repair. So we tend to focus more on negatives in life than we do the positives. Of all of the vets I have ever spoken to, every single one has a lot of complaints about the VA and the peculiarities of the system. But not a one of them would enjoy the level of comfort they have had it not been for the VA and they say this too.We complain about the things the VA does wrong, we do not complain about the VA itself and its purpose and successes.

There is only one thing that can separate a veteran from VA medical assistance and that’s a dishonorable discharge. Other than that, if you were in the service, you can get medical care from the VA. If your medical issues are the product of your military service, then the worse the problem the more helpful the VA will be. I have attained their highest level of assistance. That’s because I have a high level of of disability that is directly caused by my participation in combat. I am very badly broken and the VA is trying to apply positives that compensate for the troubles I suffer. Yes, quite often they step on their own toes (and mine) and take wrong turns because the regulations at the base of the system are flawed. But if it weren’t for the VA, I simply would not be here. Or, if I were here, I would not be feeling well enough to write this silly blog. I’d be too busy trying to mooch spare change to buy the bullet I was going to put in my head.

That is why I and the many other vets in America go to the VA for help. For all of its foibles and problems, it is still the only real hope that the average vet has to achieve some quality of life, when that life has turned against them. VA administration sucks, but not because it has bad people or it is like a pack of wolves getting ready to rend us limb from limb. The majority of people who work for the VA are kind, good and giving people who do the job because they want to see vets get a better deal out of life than they might without the VA. Sure, there are some morons in the weeds. Show me anywhere that doesn’t happen. The main focus here should be what a vet can have without the VA versus what they can have with it. Believe you me, the problems along the way have made me crazy and angry, but the sum total has been positive. The only vets who do not benefit from the VA are very likely fakers or people with dishonorable discharges.  Sometimes it takes an administrative battle of appeals and delays and delays and appeals. But it’s rare that a vet will go away with nothing unless there’s a pretty good reason. That doesn’t mean a reason that is likable, just that regulations or qualification prevent action. Sometimes the system is wrong, but mostly it appears to come out right. Sure, I read the stories about how a vet finally gets recognized, but only after they died. It’s awful that it happens, but it does. Every system of assistance has cracks into which people fall. But let’s not ignore the sidewalk full of passers by as we scrutinize the cracks for the odd mistake. Let’s try to fix the system, yes. That’s why people complain for the most part. They want to see the system fixed. It will never be perfect, but there’s no reason not to try for it.

We are a society of high military involvement. We have been the world’s police force for so long that it’s hard to find a country without a US military presence. That makes for a lot of veterans, and as time goes by, the number of vets needing care grows logarithmically. When you think about the sheer number of veterans assisted, it gets mind boggling. That the VA does the job it does, in an environment of regulatory peculiarity is mind boggling as well. I have been directly asked if the VA could do better and my answer is always yes. It can. With technology as it is today, many of the things the VA does could be done electronically and in a way much more speedy. Let the people do the process manually only when a veteran challenges the findings of the computers. That would make a huge difference in the VA because the primary complaint is the processing time it takes the agency to do anything. I have a lot of suggestions. But to be honest, by perspective is solely that of a user of the system, I don’t know about the logistics of the system or really the administrative challenges. But I do see that the VA is constantly trying to improve in a way that comprises all of the perspectives which have to be accommodated. So I may not understand the reasons that the VA is closing down many of its satellites while opening a few new ones, but I can see the improvement in my own facility and so I have to assume that in the big picture, things are getting better. Especially in light of the huge increase in qualified veterans using the system.

As to medically, the VA is always raising the bar. It takes a while for the behemoth to see an issue and more time yet to bring its self to move for improvement. But it does improve. The difference I have seen in the last year are testament to that. And when you think that the number of vets using the system has almost doubled in that same period of time, if one is fair, then they must see and admit to the huge effort expended to fix the issues. The time in a VA waiting room used to be about 5 times that for a private medical facility. Now it’s about one-third of what private medicine entails.  In short, there’s a lot of good to the VA.

It is getting better. Sure, there are quagmires, landmines and a host of other tanglefoot that goes with the VA. But they have helped me and helped every other vet who was qualified for their help. But if you are qualified, then the VA, and organizations like the VFW and American Legion, and the veterans departments of states that can and will do a lot to help. It’s a huge and confusing morass of assistance, but if you work with the people who administer the programs, chances are you will get help.  It took me four years to get to this point in my life, and that time was spent working for improvement. My persistence paid off in that I have comfort and activity I wouldn’t have without them. Don’t get me wrong; I am suspicious of the VA and always alert to stepping on one of the bear traps the system has been equipped with.  But I recognize that I am better off than I would have been without them, and by a large margin.