I’d like to tell you a story about a little boy who, at five years old, snuck off away from his home to watch the men in uniform go about their duty on a reserve installation. He was gone for hours and when he returned home got in a heap of trouble. But what happened in those few hours transformed that little boy. A spark ignited a flame and that flame burned for years illuminating his dream to become a soldier, a hero. It’s all he ever wanted since that moment oh so long ago.
That little boy grew up and joined the Army, living his dream. He never really thought he’d make it past his twenty-first birthday. Always thought he would deploy somewhere and give the ultimate sacrifice. And he was prepared. He accepted that fate, his duty, and welcomed it. He would die a hero.
Then, not long after he enlisted, he met a girl. They talked all night, like old friends catching up on their time apart. Within five days, he asked her to marry him. She, of course, said yes. And they married a month later. He finally realized he would live longer than he had ever envisioned. And wanted to. Soul mates from that first night and they have shared so much over their twenty-four years together.
Over the years, that boy suffered through ungrateful superiors, bad assignments, several accidents, and seeing horrible things while deployed. Not only had his dream been shattered — because the Army wasn’t supposed to be so corrupt, right? – but his body also. By the time he was assigned to the best unit he ever had been a part of (1/7th Cavalry Ft. Hood) his morale and body had been broken beyond repair. From that first accident, and the lack of proper treatment, that boy’s pain has progressively worsened over the years. He suffered debilitating migraines and it wasn’t until he found a doctor at Ft. Hood that actually diagnosed him that he was able to get some relief. The problem is, though, it was too late. The damage was done so many years before, exacerbated by a few other incidents along his career that the chronic pain had set in. With every failed treatment the hope he would ever get better ripped away a part of him, leaving him torn in pieces.
At twelve years, he was ready to re-enlist and his doctor told him that if he did, he would have to kick him out on a medical. No one informed him that this should have been his option, that it was not a negative mark on his service record. No one informed him; everyone led him to believe it was an “other than honorable discharge.” The little boy who dreamt of being a soldier until the day he died, had been crushed. His pride took over and rather than receiving the bad marks, he let his enlistment lapse and ETS’ed with an honorable discharge. He was left to his own vices, his own wits, to file for his VA. There was no one there who offered any help and he did it all on his own.
It was fine, at first, because he was going through the VA claims process in Waco, Texas. He had his medical review and the doctor there said he was going to recommend 70% right off the bat. However, with a new baby and his wife the only source of income, her contract job now threatened, life turned upside down. Luckily, though, she secured a new position; but it meant moving to Florida. This also meant the claim would have to be transferred and ruled on from the regional VA claims office in Florida. That first ruling put him at only 10%.
He filed an appeal. He was seeing both VA and civilian doctors for his chronic neck pain and migraines. We had much documentation. After a few years, the appeal came back and they gave him 30%.
He tried to work. But the pain, the migraines, and the medications he took, made him unreliable and most employers wouldn’t give him a second glance when they found out about it all. He eventually came to the conclusion that it was best to just stay home and raise our son, which really wasn’t an easy task as the years went by.
He went from doctor to doctor, medication to medication. You name it, he tried it. He’s been on a number of different daily regimes of medications to help “prevent” the migraines. He’s had a variety of medications to choose from when the migraines come. We even paid for chiropractic and acupuncture treatment, in hopes that would help. Nothing has completely alleviated the pain. Very few treatments have subsided the pain enough so he can semi-function in his daily routine. Most of them are so harsh that they leave him incapable of doing anything. He’s tired. He can’t sleep. He’s run down. He’s depressed. And he’s come to the conclusion that this is going to be this way for the rest of his life.
Now, his migraines come 4-5 times a week, sometimes every day. His neck is in constant pain, which makes him tense up, causing tension headaches, triggering migraines, causing him more tension, torqueing his neck, causing tension, causing headaches. A vicious, never-ending cycle. He’s suffered through all kinds of treatment options, medication and procedures, both in the civilian world and through the VA but nothing has worked. His migraine medication from the VA is never enough. Nine pills a month. And they won’t give him the other medications for the chronic pain unless he’s at 100%. We have to go to the civilian doctors for those. So our out-of-pocket costs have skyrocketed. The chronic pain has taken its physical toll. But with the never-ending pain, it has seeped into his psyche and is now working on his emotional well-being.
We knew that the chronic pain caused some symptoms of depression but since he came back from Kosovo, they worsened. With the War in Iraq and Afghanistan, many people have forgotten about that little stint. He saw some horrible things over there. He came back more broken than ever. We didn’t know it at the time, but as the years when by, the insomnia and nightmares, his anger, all became so much worse. We never really thought about it, never really connected it, until his VA doctor labeled it: depression and PTSD. And several more medications tacked on to the end of the list.
Because he didn’t deploy to Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom, he was not afforded the same ease of VA care and benefits. He’s had to fight for his benefits every single moment. We are still fighting to get these benefits and still waiting. He sees his VA psychiatrist once every 3 months, and his normal VA Physician’s Assistant once a year. If he needs something done, say an MRI or an Upper GI, he has to wait near nine months to be seen. If it’s something we think is important, we have to go out to the civilian world and pay from our own pocket. He has a Pain Management doctor that he has to see once a month, because of the new laws in Florida, which includes a $45 doctor visit plus the cost of the labs. His medication he receives is also something we have to pay for because the VA will not pay for his narcotics.
He lost his job, his career, his dream. He’s left feeling inadequate, a burden and he thinks he’s ruined his family. His wife now suffers from her own caregiver stress, depression, and hopelessness. His son has isolated himself and refuses to go outside the home and play with neighborhood friends. He feels like it’s all his fault. But in reality, the Army broke him, in more ways than one. His wife has seen the face of pain. His wife has seen him balled up on the floor crying. His wife has seen him sleep for 36 hours because of the medication he took, seen him through bouts of insomnia. He’s missed so many family holidays, so many family outings, even mowing the lawn and normal household chores he can no longer do without tremendous pain. Panic attacks set in. And now photophobia makes it so he has to wear his sunglasses inside with the curtains drawn. There isn’t anything he enjoys to do anymore. He cannot enjoy life. But most of all, he cannot enjoy his son. His wife hates seeing how depressed he has become, hates not being able to do anything for him, hates what our lives have become…a daily routine of fighting the pain. But most of all, she hates the pain.
We don’t think he will ever be 100% better and we struggle with the costs of the treatments. But we are doing our best with what we have. Our family is strong. Our will and love is strong. However, it ebbs and flows. It’s taken its toll on that little boy turned veteran. Now it is taking its toll on his family. His wife has become his caregiver, doing everything for him and the family and now she suffers caregiver grief/depression, even secondary PTSD possibly. Their son has become a recluse, not wanting to leave the house or do anything social. The toll is great for all veterans and their families.
His last appeal entered the system in 2009. We’ve been waiting so very long. He calls every three months for the status, just so they know he hasn’t given up. Each time they tell him, it’s still processing. The VA is working to relieve the backlog of the new claims, which seems to be working. At least they are boasting about it on their social media and press releases. But what of those people still in the appeals process? We recently got a letter in the mail stating we are currently 1279 out of 21,009 claims in the system and it’s worked in the order it was received. Is there anything that can be done?
I’m writing the story of a real person, his dream, what broke him, and what continues to break his will. He feels that the country, his government, that he would have given his life for without question or hesitation, has pretty much crumpled him up and tossed him in the trash. When stating he’s a disabled veteran to anyone that doesn’t know him and they look at him and say, “You don’t look disabled” in some snide remark, crushes him under the rubble of his soul.
We need more support for our veterans and their families. The hardships they have to go through while active duty cannot compare to the hardships that come after their disability. It is a new career for the service member, one that many give up. It should not be this hard. They should not have to fight for what they’re due. Yet, here we are, 13 years after he was released from the Army, and we continue our fight. Waiting, hoping, one day for that letter to come and we won’t have to put in another appeal.
–Jamie Dement, wife of a wounded warrior, her hero.
She married her hero!
(Updated January 2014)