U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine visited Culpeper on Wednesday seeking input from veterans on a number of issues, including care at Veterans Administration medical facilities and job opportunities.
The turnout at VFW Post 2524 was small, with only about a dozen veterans engaging in the 90-minute roundtable discussion. But the voices of those who attended were loud and Kaine, D–Va., got an earful.
From long waits at VA hospitals to trouble transitioning from military life to civilian jobs, vets sharply criticized Washington and government bureaucracy in general.
After Kaine told the group that 1 in 3 Virginians had either direct or indirect ties with the military, Navy veteran and author Jim Calhoun asked how Kaine and Mark Warner, Virginia’s other Democratic senator, who professed to be so in touch with veterans, could have been so blindsided by the recent VA scandal.
“What boggles my mind is that you didn’t know about all this stuff until recently,” Calhoun said.
Kaine could provide no good answer.
Diego de Castro, a Desert Storm-era veteran, said he gave up on seeking treatment at the VA hospital in Richmond.
“The wait was long and you were just a number, de Castro said. “I would go there and they would ask, ‘What kind of drugs do you want?’ Then they would say, ‘OK, here it is. See you.’ Treatment was not personalized.”
De Castro said he got the same treatment in Washington, but finally found more personalized service when he shifted to the VA facility in Martinsburg, W.Va.
“It’s a small facility, but you are not a number there; you’re a person,” he added.
But then his doctor retired and now he has to start all over again.
“They even sent me a copy of his resignation letter,” de Castro said.
De Castro and others also complained about language barriers at VA facilities.
“We need more doctors and nurses that speak English,” he said, noting that many doctors are from India and Pakistan and have a limited English vocabulary.
Michael Smith said that he opted for private insurance after he retired from the Navy in 1996, but 17 years later sought VA medical benefits when he lost his job and his insurance.
“They sent me a letter saying I was not eligible,” Smith said. “I had high blood pressure and my prescription was running out, so I went to the VA in Fredericksburg and they said it would be several months before I could get an appointment.
“I told the lady that my blood pressure was 220 over 140 and I needed medication. She smiled and said that if it was an emergency I could go to McGuire in Richmond. There the intake worker and the doctor both yelled at me for driving to Richmond in my condition. It was one of the most humiliating moments of my life.”
Smith said the Richmond doctor gave him medication that did not help and sent him on his way. He said he finally made it to his Fredericksburg appointment several months later and got proper treatment.
“If it is happening to me, it is happening to other people,” Smith told Kaine, adding that his father died waiting for surgery in a VA hospital. “I’m hesitant to go back to the VA.”
Kaine said that Smith’s case was so extreme that his office would be glad to work with him to help cut through the red tape.
Kaleb Weakley, who is 24 and recently discharged from the Marines, said that as a wounded soldier in Afghanistan, he experienced the other end of the VA spectrum.
“The longest wait I ever had was 10 minutes,” he said. “They would say, ‘Oh, you are a wounded warrior!’ and take me right in while older guys just sat there for hours and waited.
“My brothers and I can’t stand the term ‘wounded warrior.’ We are just like any other veteran. Don’t stereotype me or give me preferential treatment. Treat everybody equal. I’m not a hero; I’m a soldier doing my job.”
IN NEED OF JOBS
Weakley and de Castro also complained about the lack of transitional help for discharged soldiers trying to find jobs in the private sector.
“I was an artilleryman,” said de Castro. “The only private sector job for me was with the Mafia and I didn’t like their retirement plan.”
Kaine said he hoped there would soon be a website that would connect military veterans with companies that want to hire them.
Weakley said he had found one.
“I was an artilleryman, too, and the job it wanted to hook me up with was in Colorado shooting up mountainsides to cause avalanches on ski slopes,” he said.
De Castro also wanted to know how the government planned to come up with money to help triple and quadruple amputees that may need assistance for decades.
“We made a commitment to go into Afghanistan and Iraq so we have to commit to helping these veterans who may need a lifetime of care,” Kaine said.
Weakley, who was deployed four times in Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan, told the senator that veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome find themselves in a quandary when applying for a job.
“If they say something, they are afraid that companies won’t hire them because they may feel that their heads are messed up,” he said.
“I was told just to shut up about it before I was discharged,” said de Castro.
The roundtable discussion wasn’t totally negative. R. E. Deane said he had received wonderful treatment, again at the Martinsburg facility and its Stephens City (near Winchester) satellite office.
Kaine promised to take all the complaints and stories back to Washington, where a VA reform bill is pending.
That bill would fund the recruitment of more medical personnel, build more facilities and allow veterans to see private physicians if VA hospital waits become too long. Doctors would then bill the government.
And he said he would attempt to reinstate the old abandoned service of having a VA representative visit localities regularly to hear about problems.
“I’m passionate about veterans’ issues,” Kaine said.