VA’s Broken Promises



He’s a family member, this veteran I know. But he’d have you know that he was never on the front lines, never fought in combat the way so many of my veteran friends did, the way my own daddy did. So for far too many years, really up until just two years ago, I didn’t know anything about the injury he sustained while serving in Germany.

It was an injury severe enough to land him in the hospital, when the infection set in he was life-flighted to a bigger, better hospital. They called his momma and daddy back home in Oregon and told them that he was pretty sick and unsure of how it might all turn out. All his folks could do was sit by the phone and pray. They are good praying people, those two, so they did that.

The antibiotics and good doctoring, and I reckon all those prayers worked. It wasn’t long before the veteran, just a boy then, was back out with the rest of his squad running. Of course, a lot of the muscle in his upper thigh had been eaten away by that awful infection. No matter, the boy soldier just wrapped that part of his leg as well as he could muster with duct tape so it would be strong enough to carry him. He’d learned that on the farm, watching his daddy repair whatever needed fixing. If there was a will, there was a way with duct tape. Besides, he’d grown up with a father crippled by polio, he hardly felt like he had the right to complain about a little thigh injury.

It never occurred to him, twenty years later, that the problem with his back had anything at all to do with that thigh injury all those years ago. He just marked the bad back up to too much hard physical labor, something he’d done all of his life, just like his daddy before him, and his granddaddy before that.  Besides, ranch hands like him didn’t have health insurance. A cowboy veteran couldn’t be running to the doctor for every ache and pain, no matter how bad it hurt.

But eventually, his back got so bad, he couldn’t get to work. His folks had to carry him to the doctor, who told him he didn’t need just any doctor, he needed a specialist and a surgeon. So those parents, bless their hearts, sold their home and used the proceeds of that sale to make sure their son got the surgery he needed.

The veteran could have gone to his local VA hospital, four hours away by car, and had the surgery done there for free but he refused to go. Said he didn’t deserve it because he’d never fought on the front lines, never had to defend himself or his brothers or his country in combat. When asked about the injury he did suffer while in service, the veteran would wave his hand and say that the VA was there for people who had earned the right to good doctoring. He didn’t feel he had.

The surgery and subsquent care bankrupted the veteran’s parents retirement. That happens a lot to people who don’t have health insurance, who don’t understand that if you served honorably in the military you paid the dues required to receive life-long care at your local VA hospital.

Of course, a lot of veterans die waiting to receive the care they’ve already paid the dues for. A new report, one the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Obama Administration hoped the general public would never see, claims that up to a quarter of all veterans seeking care at their local VA hospital die before that care is ever granted.

It happened to a friend of mine, not long ago. He was the biggest, strongest man I have ever known. He built homes of beauty with his bare hands. Big, strong, skilled hands, he had. But five weeks after the doctors first diagnosed him with cancer, he was dead. Like my family member, he’d never served on the front lines of battle, either. But he had served in the heat of Georgia as the American War in Vietnam was winding down. His medical bills, that last ditch of a rescue chemo treatment, and that week in the nearby hospital cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It should have all been covered by his VA benefits, if only the VA had a way of getting veterans like him the help they need as soon as they need it. But the kind of care my friend needed was urgent. He didn’t have five months to wait for an appointment. He only had five weeks.

According to that leaked report, my friend isn’t the only veteran who died before they could get treatment: “The April 2015 report, leaked to the Huffington Post by VA whistleblower Scott Davis, indicates that 238,657 of the 847,882 veterans waiting to be enrolled in VA healthcare are already dead, suggesting that over 28 percent of veterans applying for health coverage perished while waiting for it.”

The VA would have you believe that most veterans have other insurance – private insurance, Medicaid, Obamacare – other means of getting the help they need when they need it, because, Lord knows, if it is care from the VA you need, you best not be needing it quickly:

“VA wants you to believe, by virtue of people being able to get health care elsewhere, it’s not a big deal,” said Scott Davis, a program specialist at the Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta.“But VA is turning away tens of thousands of veterans eligible for health care. VA is making it cumbersome, and then saying, ‘See? They didn’t want it anyway.’”

Turns out my friend, the one who died, he did have private insurance. If he hadn’t, I suppose he would have just passed curled up on the couch at home, suffering more than he did without benefit of medicine or good doctoring to ease the pain one bit.

But my family member? He hasn’t had the luxury of another option. When the back surgery that was supposed to fix his problem failed to fix the problem, he grew steadily worse. So bad that by the time he reached the ripe age of 45, he walked solely with the aid of crutches, and even then, not far, not more than five feet, before his legs give out and he had to sit down or fall down.

The reason he was getting worse and not better is because his back was never the problem. It was that thigh muscle issue from that 20 years prior. Seems the injury had done far more damage than anyone knew. The veteran started favoring the other leg, and that favoring took a toil on his hips. Wore the ball joints in both hips completely out. There wasn’t nothing there but gristle upon gristle.

That’s what the VA doctors determined after the veteran finally got in to see them.

It wasn’t an easy thing, convincing the veteran that a person didn’t have to serve on the front lines, didn’t have to pick up a gun and go into battle, to deserve the care promised to him or her when they signed up willingly, gladly, to serve their country honorably. I know, I was the one doing the convincing.

He’s not the first I’ve told. I doubt he’ll be the last I’ll tell: You earned this benefit. You already paid the price for it.

The surgical team at the VA hospital in Boise, Idaho did a good job. The veteran no longer walks with crutches. This summer he is able to walk the ranch fence line on his own two legs with his brand-new robotic hips.  He feels like a new person. He looks like a new person, too. He’s got a personal trainer and he’s working out. He’s taking good care of himself. His back doesn’t hurt at all. Nothing does, really. He feels like a new man. He is new man.

It’s not the staff at the local VA hospitals that’s causing the backlog whereby a quarter of all veterans die before they get the care they seek.. Nope. The staff at these VA hospitals, they work hard to serve the men and women who served them. They care. And they are just as frustrated as the veterans and their families when the system fails.

The problem is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is governed wrongly, badly. Those administrating are far removed from the veterans suffering and dying. And they don’t seem to know very much about how to administrate efficiently. They dispute the damning report saying that the data is old and that many of those veterans now dead died long ago. They just don’t have a way of keeping better track of the living veterans and the dead ones.

Huffington Post reports, “Scott Davis recently sent a letter to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, laying out the problems with the health care backlog. He highlighted that 34,000 combat veterans are among those listed as pending for health care — none of whom should be on that list since combat veterans are granted five years of guaranteed eligibility for VA health care.

“They have no business being there,” he said. “These are men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Yep. And we pay these administration people good money to do their jobs in such a sorry fashion.


Karen Spears Zacharias is author of the upcoming novel Burdy, which takes a look at post-traumatic stress disorder. You can order the book now from your favorite bookseller or on Amazon or directly from the publisher, Mercer University Press.  

Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.


Justin Shuman

about 7 years ago

Karen, This story really hit home with me. I served for 29 years in the US Army but I was never in combat. The years after 9/11 my unit was assigned casualty notification and casualty assistance duty. It was very tough but we did it professionally and helped many spouses and their families through a very difficult time. There are many bad memories associated with that duty. My first three years of service was spent in "West" Germany in an isolated air defense missile unit. I witnessed a fellow Soldier, PFC Ralph Craft, die in a missile movement accident. It was a horrible incident. We were both in a battery of 65 personnel. He was in first platoon and I was in second platoon. We both had the same job, missile movement operators. It was dangerous, we knew that, but if done properly the danger was minimal. In the weeks following his death new safety measures were put into place. There were no grief counselors or anything like that in 1986. We were just expected to move on. After all these years I often think of him and how lucky I was to enjoy all the things he never would. My family, a full army career, travel, just life in general. Many Soldiers died in training accidents during the Cold War. It was a difficult time for many military personnel. I had nightmares and panic attacks over the years when something would trigger that moment I endured in 1986 but I kept it inside. It's not so bad anymore, but I will always remember PFC Ralph Craft. He was a good man and Soldier. I have access to my local VA and I have back problems and other issues but I choose to use to my own doctor for right now. There are men and women who are in extreme need of care at the VA and my issues are manageable. I don't want to add to the chaos that the VA faces. My local VA is very good as I am told by friends of mine who have retired. I could receive free care there but others need it much more than I do. Someday if things get worse for me I will use the VA, but for now I want those who are in more need to better access to the care they need. I feel there are many good people who work for the VA and honestly care for veterans, but as in any government organization there are those who don't. They need to be weeded out and the leaders of the VA need to be held accountable so the people who need care can receive it in a timely manner.


Rodger Asai

about 5 years ago

Dear Justin Shuman, By any chance do you remember what happened to Army Sgt. Sang Meki Sione Ah? He was from American Samoa and is listed as having also died from an accident on the same day as PFC Craft in Germany. They are both going to be added to the Remembrance Rug . I just like to have more details when possible.


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