Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Slap in the Face, Courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs

I had another anxiety attack today. I left the post office and walked to my car. The rage was building, the despair was creeping, and I could tell I was losing it, but I kept going. I called my advisor from the Disabled American Veterans, and screamed into the phone. I got into the car, still yelling, and started the engine.

I had just gotten three letters from the VA. The first two were just like the ones I had been receiving for months. “We are still processing your application for compensation. We apologize for the delay.” It had taken me years to be able to admit to myself that I had PTSD. I registered with the VA when I got off active duty. The first time I went to the VA hospital, I knew the numbers, and I knew it was a disaster. Then I saw it first hand.

At first I saw the Vietnam vets. Men that were hustled through their midlife years and were walking with canes or in wheelchairs, sometimes muttering to themselves the regrets that only a broken soldier knows. Then I saw the World War II vets, clinging to life with the pride of a dieing breed. Then I saw the vets that looked like me. They bore the scars I recognized but couldn't feel. The IEDs of Fallujah echoed in the halls.

I thought I didn't belong. I got a consultation for PTSD, but missed my first appointment and never rescheduled. I didn't want to be a burden. There were those far more deserving than I. But then I needed help, and help came in the form of a fistful of prescriptions. It didn't help.

Then a Vietnam vet told me that I had earned my due. I needed to file for disability. It was the cost of my innocence, but I felt dirty to put a price tag on that and I didn't want to even ask what kind of check came with the “70%” label. So I filled out a lot of forms, and in a gut-wrenching all-nighter, described in detail my “stressors.” With my advisor, I turned in the forms in person in a building that could only make a bureaucrat smile.

It took me over a year and a meeting in person with the secretary of the VA just to get an ID card. I wasn't surprised when they wanted me to fill out more forms and I sent them in, like a good little veteran. Then over the course of months, the letters came. “We apologize for the delay.”

Today was different. The third letter I opened said, “We determined that the following condition was not related to your military service, so service connection couldn't be granted: Medical Description, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)” “Service connection for post-traumatic stress disorder is denied.” “Review of your DD214, Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty, and 201 Personnel file are negative for any evidence of combat medals or ribbons that can be considered evidence of participation in a stressful episode.” Bureaucratic words that still slice like razors to the bone. I guess they didn't see my Combat Action Ribbon, or Navy Commendation Medal. Maybe I really was crazy before I joined the Marines!

I was livid to say the least. As I drove on and the desperation overcame the anger I cried. I turned up the music to drown the sorrow, but the tears kept coming. I know there is an appeals process that I intend to pursue, but this is worse than being called a “phony soldier” by some neocon nut job. So I guess it's back to being another struggling veteran, trying to figure out how I will cover the rent this month.

But my veteran friends were able to put things in perspective for me. I spoke to Scot Camil, whose courage as a veteran speaking out against the war in Vietnam has been a great source of inspiration for me. I spoke to Chris Hill of Gathering of Eagles, who happens to be a bit of a war fetishist, but understands the brotherhood of veterans. I spoke to Jeremy Williams, who served with me in the same unit at Camp Pendleton, and is now toiling as a tireless veterans advocate in Texas. It could be a lot worse. And before I went to bed, I spoke to my muse and heard the music and she touched my soul and everything was right as rain again.