PALO ALTO, Calif. — A half-hour appointment at the Department of Veterans Affairs' Palo Alto medical complex quite often translates into a full day or more of travel and added stress for veterans from the San Joaquin Valley and Sierra foothills.
Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, learned that firsthand when he volunteered to drive Stockton resident Scott Halsey, a 100 percent disabled military veteran, to his podiatry appointment earlier this week.
"The biggest complaint among all the veterans is the traffic, the rubberneckers. The biggest hassle for going over (to Palo Alto) is just getting over there and getting back," said Halsey, one of an estimated 36,000 veterans living in San Joaquin County. About double that number live on this side of the Altamont served by the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.
McNerney, the four-term Democratic congressman from Stockton, has been pushing for several years for the VA to move forward on constructing its planned medical center in French Camp. The current clinic has seen a jump of more than 3,000 visits from fiscal 2012 to 2013, recording 34,591 visits serving more than 7,500 patients.
"It's been pushed back on the priority list, and that is not acceptable. There is no reason why we can't have services (in French Camp)," McNerney said as he emerged from his three-hour-plus, 85-mile drive with Halsey in heavy traffic through the Altamont Pass to the VA's massive campus near the south end of San Francisco Bay.
Halsey, 53, said the last time he drove over with his wife in morning traffic, it took more than 31/2 hours with no stops. "It's three hours on a good day," he said, noting he averages about 10 trips a year to Palo Alto. He also goes to the small VA clinic in French Camp just south of San Joaquin General Hospital whenever he can, but it doesn't provide all the services he requires.
He explained that the VA does provide monetary reimbursement for travel from Stockton — $35 for the first two trips in a month, then $65 for a third trip.
"It pays for a tank of fuel and some food on the way," he said. There is also a shuttle bus from Stockton to the Livermore and Palo Alto centers, but if you are late at either end, you are out of luck for the day. A new, 104-bed Defenders Lodge was recently completed at the Palo Alto campus, offering veterans and their caregivers free overnight accommodations if they need to stay.
VA Palo Alto spokesman Bill Ball said he was well aware of what many San Joaquin Valley veterans endure.
"I know there is plenty of stop-and-go traffic," Ball said. "It's a long drive for a veteran, especially depending on their needs. They might not have a nice car or any car. It's a lot of ask of our veterans."
For Halsey, his health needs are complicated — not necessarily unusual for many veterans.
Halsey lost his left eye in a freak explosion in 1978, somehow escaping death. Seven years later as a sergeant assigned to Camp Williams in Utah, he was in the back of a cargo truck traveling with four other soldiers in a roadless area picking up communications wire when the brakes failed and the truck careened, end over end, down a 1,500-foot incline. Remarkably, no one died.
"We laid out in the desert for 81/2 hours. By the grace of God, they found me," said Halsey, recalling his second brush with near death. He had a hole in his skull, broken vertebrae, broken collarbones and elbow, numerous cuts, including a 9-inch laceration on one arm, and his scalp was literally sheared off and "sitting on my left shoulder. My face ended up in a cactus."
Years later, Halsey learned that the vehicle he was riding in was "the truck from hell" with a long history of accidents and brake failures. "It never should have been returned to service," he said. He also found out that, due to miscommunications among emergency responders, he was administered four ampoules of morphine instead of just one for pain.
Halsey, who moved to Stockton in 1986, studied architecture at San Joaquin Delta College and worked designing houses for many years, has been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He also more recently learned that he has diabetes.
Sitting in a Palo Alto waiting room before seeing the surgeons who would remove post-operative stitches from Halsey's toes that needed to be surgically shortened to remove a bone infection, he talked about the difficulties of traveling there:
"It takes a lot of time and a lot of brain power. It's grueling. I don't come over here alone because of the headaches. I never know when I'm going to get one. It starts with a numbing feeling here (Halsey indicated just below his eyes), and then my head explodes into pain."
This week was his third trip to Palo Alto just to see a podiatrist. At the end of his appointment, he had to schedule another follow-up in a few weeks.
He explained that while his primary physician is in French Camp, he sees three specialists at the VA's Livermore campus and several more in Palo Alto, mainly surgeons who he said don't travel.
"I've had great treatment at Livermore and Palo Alto. Today went very well. I got in and out quicker than normal. It usually is actually longer than eight hours. There are days where we don't get back to Stockton until 6 or 7 o'clock at night - it just depends on the traffic," he said.
As for the man who volunteered to drive him this week, Halsey said of McNerney:
"He's been a real good advocate for the veterans all the way around. He has been pushing where he can to get stuff moving. His main focus now with the new administration of the VA coming in is to say we need to get this done. He is definitely well-appreciated by veterans that I know."
Almost eight hours after they left Stockton, McNerney dropped Halsey off at his home.
"It's always good to put yourself in someone else's shoes," McNerney said. "It's good service (in Palo Alto), as far as I could tell. They have more services than we have now (in French Camp). We can do that, do our best to move expeditiously to French Camp.
"It's ultimately about timing, bringing publicity to how far these veterans have to travel."