Monday, November 25, 2013

A Spouse Speaks: An open letter to the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs

We have the pleasure of communicating with this spouse frequently. She is a fierce advocate for the life of her husband...

Dear Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs,

You do not know me.  To you I was a dependent of government issued property, a number related to the last four of a social security number that wasn’t even mine.  A Department of Defense issued beneficiary ID number.  It was not until the 14th of April 2013 that I became a wife of a veteran.  For the past 3 years, I have been that silent one in the corner.  The silent one that has her Master’s of Public Administration.  The one who was told that what I said will affect my husband’s career. 

On March 24, 2005 your recruiting team told my husband “you will see the world” and we will take care of you.  The recruiter said that the Army “has all of these benefits” for him and his family while he served his country and when he got done.  My husband did not join for the pay.  He joined to serve his country honorably.  He was not the only young man in America to do so.  He did serve honorably until 14 April 2013 when he was medically retired for severe post traumatic stress disorder and a severe traumatic brain injury.  He kept his promise to you.  What you did not do was keep your promise to him and millions of other veterans.  With that said, I have some questions for you. 

How can you say you were not prepared for the mental health treatment that was going to be needed by veterans when they returned from combat?  You trained them to go over there, you knew before they did what their mission was going to be.  You sent the soldier through training, telling them it is ok to kill another human being.  While I understand that “war” makes it necessary to do so, the human brain tells them it is not.  I know the soldier voluntarily signed up to do so.  However, they also expected to have care when they returned home.  For a soldier to say “they didn’t expect us to come home” and to find out that the resources really show that you weren’t bothers me to say the least.  In addition, when a soldier does seek treatment, the first thing that is done is the handing out of pills and other medications.  Counseling that you offer involves the soldier telling the stories about what is affecting them.  I’ve never sat in a counseling session, but I have been told in frustration what is talked about.  I do not have a degree in psychology, but common sense will tell a person that when someone is suffering from flashbacks and nightmares they do not want to spend an hour talking about a flashback.  Your counselors talk with a soldier for one hour about the “memories” that are causing these flashbacks.  Talking about the memories open up a chance for more flashbacks, but the hour time is up so you send them home to deal with it.  Exposure therapy, or desensitization, can be a successful program if the soldier is watched carefully.  1 hour once a week is not enough to use this method.  Again, I’m not a counselor.  I am a wife, who has witnessed her husband go through therapy sessions.  What veterans want to know is how to function through the day when they have the flashback.  They want to know how to function tomorrow.  They want to know how to love their family, how to put their guard down, how to enjoy being “stateside”.  Again, the things that are done at war cause a battle of morals within a person.  You program them to function in war.  You do not de-program them when they come home.  Your counselors want to desensitize the wars, not the fact that the soldier is back on United States ground. 

Maybe that is why a veteran commits suicide every hour.  Maybe that is why the divorce rate is higher within military couples than civilian couples.  I remember sitting in a division meeting at Fort Hood for families prior to the last deployment.  Throughout this hour long meeting, everything was discussed from finances to power of attorneys.  The one thing that was never mentioned was the fact that the man we knew was not going to come home.  Sure, the division commander made a promise that he would bring every man home safe.  For the most part he did.  God bless those who made the ultimate sacrifice.  However, the man that left is not the man that came home.  Odds are the soldier that left is not going to want to be at a large concert right away and will probably wake up many times throughout the night.  The soldier will probably not want to watch war movies and will have a hard time reintegrating back into the family setting.  You don’t want to address those things though.  Those things are not the “happy” parts of a soldier leaving his family for 12 to 15 months. 

My husband did two tours in Iraq, one a 15 month deployment and another 12 months.  These back to back tours had him blown up 27 times by IED’s, leaving him with shrapnel all over his body including his lungs.  He has severed nerves in his neck from the explosions.  Most recently, he was diagnosed with seizures due to the TBI.  He has been to the military treatment facilities (MTF) on multiple occasions.  I’m not mad at what you did to my husband.  He did it with honor.  I am mad at what you didn’t do.  You see, the first time he went to a MTF he did it to become a better soldier.  Instead, you told him he was “unfit for military duty” and was going to be released from duty.  He is not the only soldier this has happened to.  What about the soldier who you pulled out of a mental hospital with an attempted suicide 24 hours prior because he did get his papers back to be out of the Army?  You would rather him get his discharge papers instead of getting the treatment he needed for the symptoms you caused.   

For almost 2 years, we lived month to month during the medical evaluation board (MEB) process being told “next month you will be out.”  For almost 2 years, you told him he was worthless to the military.  During this process, our savings was drained going back and forth to appointments around Texas for him to be treated.  You never reimbursed us for that.  His ETS date came up in November of 2012.  Your MEB department at Fort Hood did not sign the right paperwork for an extension, so he did not get paid.  We lost all benefits.  We had nothing.  You still owe us for 45 days of pay.  Finally, in February of 2013 his paperwork came back.  He was going to start terminal leave on 14 February 2013 with his effective date of retirement 60 days following.  That should be exciting, right?  Boy, again YOU ARE WRONG.  He was leaving the only thing he ever knew.  He is sick.  However, you DOD don’t care because he was “relieved from active duty” on 14 February.  You, VA, don’t care because you wouldn’t even take a call until his retirement date.  Yep, he had 60 days of absolutely no treatment.  No treatment for what you relieved him of active duty for.  Now, that is only issue number 1.

In addition to the money that is still owed to us by you DOD, we had to make sure to clear any debts that he had with the DOD prior to his release from active duty.  The only debt we had was with Central Issuing Facility (CIF).  Being stationed at one duty station for an entire career means the soldier never has to turn in gear throughout the years.   Since he enlisted, he’s had BDU’s, ACUs, Desert gear.  Being blown up by 27 IED’s and being shot at is going to leave gear a little “used”.  To tell a soldier that it needs to be turned in “like new” is ridiculous.  I’m sure that every soldier has high hopes of having gear come back from a war zone in “like new” condition.  You can figure out why.  Then to have that soldier pay for gear that is no longer used in the military is unfathomable to me.  Being someone that asks why, I asked CIF what they do with the gear that is no longer issued.  To tell a soldier who makes a living penny to the dollars of many others in America that the $700 flack vest in expired BDU will be sent to 3rd world country armies or burned makes me outraged.  You mean to tell me, as a wife, that I cannot buy groceries because we have to cloth the same Army that blew up my husband is beyond words.  A further explanation for that would be appreciated. 

Now, as June 1st rolls around, he sits here knowing that he won’t get his first retirement check on the date you promised.  Some soldiers have been told it takes up to a year before disability checks actually kick in.  So you are telling me, that a soldier who is injured leaving them unable to work in the outside world is suppose to go 365 days without money.  Have you ever thought that maybe it is your system that is causing almost 70,000 veterans to be homeless on any given night?  Your actions force a veteran to seek any job in the civilian world, that they are capable of doing with their injury, so they can eat and have a roof over their head.  However, between lack of civilian employment history and job training from military occupations that do not meet civilian sector positions, veterans in the United States have a higher rate of unemployment than any other demographic.  The sad and frustrating part about this is these men sacrificed civilian training and education to serve their country honorably.  I understand that you are making strides to improve the transition to the civilian world.  The Army Career and Alumni Program (ACAP) recently started a 5 day seminar program that is required for any soldier exiting the Army on honorable terms.  That sounds like a great idea.  However, the thing that is not taught in that seminar is how to function as a civilian.  You, DOD, trained these young men and women to do things that are morally incorrect and illegal in the civilian world.   You, DOD, did not de-program them from the mental thinking that you instilled. 

Again, you have yet to fully address the causal effects of your treatment of the soldiers that you promised to take care of upon their return from combat.  According to the benefits that you promised and what you, the VA, say you do, every veteran who has served in a combat zone is eligible for services at a Department of Veterans Affairs facility.  Over one million military personnel have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.  This combat zone tour makes them eligible for your services.  Common sense would mean that before you sent 1 million to war, you would ensure that your services are capable of taking care of 1 million people when they come home.  It is taking veterans over 30 days to get an appointment with a doctor at any given VA clinic.  Veterans should never have to jump through hoops to use the benefits that you promised them when they signed that dotted line.  I am not mad at you for what happened to my husband when he served this country honorably.  I am frustrated at how you treat them when they come home.  I see your public relations on TV that show the rest of the civilian world what you are “doing” for our returning veterans.  I also see how those programs actually function.  To quote Theodore Roosevelt, “A man good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards.”  Think about that when you start re-evaluating what you have done and what you plan to do.

God bless,

The wife of a veteran