- Posted August 5, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The written word: Your personal essays
Although we had just met, Joe eventually turned the conversation to politics. Be wary of Obamacare, he warned, because the problems with the VA are a preview of government-run health care. I considered whether or not to avoid confrontation. As a psychologist, I knew that the VA had expanded its mental health services to meet the needs of veterans and that it employed some of the most skilled and caring professionals I had known. Curious, I chose to engage.
It turns out that Joe had also encountered competent and caring VA professionals. It was accessing them that was the battle. Once you do, he said, “you are in tall grass." The main problem he described was the arduous claims process for service-related medical or mental health benefits. His experience made him see the VA as a system that did not care about how well it was serving veterans.
I began investigating, and what I found was horrifying. The evidence supported Joe’s experience of a dysfunctional claims system. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, the average wait time for veteran claims is 242 days, the average wait for veterans filing initial claims is 318 days, and the average wait for appealed claims is 1,301 days. A growing number of veterans are dying before they receive their benefits.
As a psychologist, I know the risk for developing PTSD is related not only to experiences while deployed but also to what happens after. Research indicates that risk is significantly increased by ongoing life stress and lack of social support following the traumatic experiences. It seems reasonable to wonder if a system that is excessively slow and frustrating in its response to the needs of veterans isn’t playing into those factors, inadvertently increasing the risk of mental health problems.
As a citizen, I wonder how we tolerate this betrayal of those who have honorably served our country. I wonder if I have done enough with my fruitless letters and calls to the White House and Congress. I wonder why few seem to be paying attention, why it is not in the headlines regularly, and why the political emails in my inbox never mention it at all. Joe and I disagree on many matters of politics. But on this we, and most Americans, agree: Veterans are entitled to receive what they were promised, and it is a moral imperative to welcome them home with not only words of gratitude and support but also with a system that serves them effectively, efficiently, and respectfully.
I see Joe move forward with his life despite his ongoing claims battles. And I feel admiration once again. Having seen ugliness and destruction that most of us never see, he dedicates himself to capturing the beauty in fleeting moments that most of us miss. In war, as in the sports competitions and music ensembles that he photographs, those who are working together put forth their best effort and are there for each other. President Obama cannot believably argue for the ethic of being there for each other as citizens of a nation – the ideal behind health care reform - if he does not do his best to make sure government fulfills its obligation to veterans. The President loses credibility arguing that government can have a positive role if the VA claims system is not functional.
When I volunteered with a veterans’ organization to donate an hour a week of therapy, I was asked to state why I was doing so. My first thought was: I’m doing it for Joe. My second was how small my action is compared to his. Because as I see it, he was there for me in Iraq, whether I agreed with the war or not. When there is danger of harm and a seemingly insurmountable task, people like Joe don't argue over the cause or explain why the problem is so difficult; they act without delay to protect others and minimize harm. President Obama should do the same in responding to the VA backlog. It is an intolerable, immoral situation that must end. He is the Commander in Chief. It is his job.