Veterans claim your benefits today

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The thing about the Veterans Affairs Department is that it is a big bureaucracy. That’s the way most people think of it — which is really just one way of looking at it. The other way, the way many vets view it, is that it is the place we go to for health care or to get our benefits.

Benefits, for those that might be interested, are not handouts. Benefits are things veterans have earned by their service to this nation. The home loan guarantee, the G.I. Bill, health care — these are all things we veterans earned by serving in the United States Armed Forces. They are part of the contract the government agrees to when we enlist or become commissioned officers. When we are finished serving our nation the government owes us these things.

So these are not handouts. Let’s end the stigma around collecting our V.A. benefits, especially the health care. Life is too precious to let things go untreated because getting help might make us look weak. If a veteran was injured in any way while on active duty, the government is obligated to compensate that vet for those injuries. Doesn’t matter if it was in a war zone or not.

When a soldier, airman, sailor, Coast Guardsman or marine is about to exit the military, they generally see a benefits counselor from one of the service organizations like the Veteran of Foreign Wars. The counselors let them know what is available to them, including medical care and possible compensation for injuries sustained while on active duty.

The common reply to that from many of the service personnel is, “I’ll leave the money for the vets that really need it.” That’s not how it works. The money is set aside for every veteran regardless of the amount of compensation. When a soon-to-be vet walks away from benefits he or she has earned, they are leaving their money, their benefits with the government.

This is important because it may not seem like a big deal as you salute your way out of the military, but 20, 30 or 40 years down the road having that compensation and those benefits could be the difference between good and difficult quality of life. There are Vietnam veterans today that are just learning they have benefits derived from being exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical compound that leads to cancer, diabetes and a host of other conditions and diseases.

Don’t wait. Claim your benefits today. Yes, the bureaucracy is incredibly frustrating and the process is long and mind-numbing, but once in the system the benefits will be a great help.

Visiting the V.A. Medical Center

Someone once wrote: “Pain was the touchstone of all spiritual progress.” Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t, but pain is a motivating force that moves people to do a lot of things. Some of them not so constructive.

Chronic pain, for instance, is a leading cause of suicide. Anyone that has suffered severe chronic pain can understand why another person ends their life because of ongoing, unrelenting, life-consuming pain. There is no “quality of life” when a person has chronic pain. It’s with you every day, from the moment you wake up to the moment you finally crash into sleep after lying in bed for hours wishing the pain would stop long enough to fall asleep.

So off to the doctors we go.

A trip to the V.A. Medical Center in La Jolla, CA is an eye-opening experience, no matter how many times I’ve been there — and I’ve been going to V.A. medical centers for nearly 40 years. No matter how bad my condition may be there are always others with far more severe conditions. That’s not to say I don’t belong there, or people not as severely injured or impaired are taking up needed services. The point is the V.A. has services for all veterans, regardless of their various conditions and afflictions.

One day while waiting for a ride to pick me up I saw two individuals from the spinal cord injury unit making their way from one building to another. The lead vet was in a motorized wheelchair and the other was on a traveling gurney. The gurney vet was laying on his stomach, holding onto the back of the motorized wheelchair as the two made their slow progress to their destination. The distance was only about 150 feet, but it took them almost 15 minutes to make the trip.

That was the most inspirational thing I’ve seen in a long time. The human spirit, bound by a need to help one another, overcoming obstacles.

Other times we see vets that are fully ambulatory, walking with canes or walkers, or in chairs, motorized and hand-powered. We pass each other and sometimes nod in acknowledgment to our shared veteran’s experience.

Some years ago I decided to always wear my USMC gear, a hat in particular, for every visit to one of the V.A.’s clinics. Besides the hospital in La Jolla, the V.A. has several smaller clinics around San Diego and Imperial Counties to assist in the care of veterans. I go to one in Sorrento Valley, a place located in an otherwise bland office building.

I wear this gear not just because I’m proud to have served in the United States Marine Corps, but also to pay tribute to my fellow vets — we are part of the same tribe and paid a price to be there.

The V.A. Medical Center in La Jolla though has thousands of people in it every day, many of them the worker bees that keep the place running, employees that handle the bureaucracy veterans must endure and then the medical personnel that looks after our health care. Along with all the vets of course. Many of the V.A. employees are vets themselves and they wear their affiliations proudly on their name badges.

So this one day in particular I visited the hospital it was to see someone at the psychiatric walk-in clinic. What happened was after days and nights of severe pain caused by a severe case of venous stasis I vented to some friends about the dark thoughts I had at the worst time of the pain: wanting to have my legs amputated or — the eye-opener — a 9mm would be handy right about now. The last part I said jokingly of course, telling everyone I didn’t rush out to by a handgun of the 9 mil variety. “ha-ha-ha! Lol!”

One friend, also a vet, though saw a red flag. He made me promise to call the veterans crisis hotline, which I did the next day. They in turn made me promise to get into the walk-in clinic right away, or as soon as possible.

Here’s a problem with some vets: We don’t drive for a variety of reasons so just jumping in an automobile and going to a medical clinic on a whim is not an option. On top of that, the free rides offered by the veterans service organizations require a two-week notice for a free ride. Plus, the public transit system in San Diego is abysmal at best.

So, just over a week later I made it into the walk-in clinic which would eventually become a four hour stay.

You check in and then wait an hour to see an intake specialist — usually a nurse of some type — and then wait another hour to see a doctor or nurse practitioner who does the evaluation and recommends treatment. Thank god for iPod. 50-plus Grateful Dead recordings, 50-plus Frank Zappa recordings, along with about a hundred other bands. Hendrix started the wait.

Along the way every medical person in that clinic said I made the right decision to walk into the clinic. The friend who saw the red flag did the right thing to push me into making the call and the visit. No one said joking about a 9 mil was no big deal, just a joke. They all agreed with my friend who said it was at the very least a cry for help.

“Did you think about ways to kill yourself?” Nope. “Did you decide you wanted to kill yourself at that moment?” Nope. “Do you have thoughts about suicide often?” Nope. “Did you ever attempt suicide in the past?” Yep.

Then I had to explain walking down Water Street in Milwaukee, WI to jump off the bridge into the Milwaukee River and end it all. But, after climbing up on the first rail realized I was over a parking lot and started stressing over the possibility of ruining someone else’s day by landing on their car.

The Vet Center happened to be a block away so I decided to seek some help there instead of ruining someone’s car and day. That was in 1982 and began my journey into vet-related and V.A. mental health services. Even then going to the Vet Center, which was a new concept at the time, was a recommendation from a friend.

This is the thing for me: I’m lucky to have friends who know the warning signs, the red flags and are willing to be insistent about getting help. Being a veteran, whether a combat vet or not, isn’t a piece of cake every day. When saddled with chronic pain it may seem like we’re putting a burden on our friends or family — and in reality it can be a burden — but by doing so they can be the clear thinking person we need to do something about it, something not destructive.

As someone else put it on this website: it’s time to end the stigma surrounding mental health care. There is nothing wrong, or bad, or weak about reaching out for help. If you’re a veteran, these services belong to you — you earned them.

We can write volumes about what is wrong with the Veterans Affairs Department, from the top of the bureaucracy to the people dishing out food in the Patriots Café. From the long waits getting into the system and receiving medical and financial benefits, to the long waits at overcrowded and under-staffed clinics. But don’t let that be an excuse not to get help.

If you are a family member or friend of a vet and you see or hear a warning sign — a “red flag” — urge the vet to get help, even if he or she resists.

About 20 vets kill themselves every day. You don’t have to be one of them. The Veterans Crisis Line is 800-273-8255 then press 1. Friends and family members can call the line as well to get help for the veterans in their lives.

Just an after thought here: the employees in the Patriots Café are generally very nice and friendly.

Top photo: The V.A. Medical Center in La Jolla, CA (Facebook)