Support our mission

I joined the Army right after high school. My time in the military has provided the best times of my life, and the worst. I’m proud of my service and wouldn’t take back a moment of it.

The Army and my teammates always had my back. When my vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2008, they were right there to help. When I transitioned to civilian life, I assumed the Department of Veterans Affairs would continue providing me with the medical care I needed.

I assumed wrong. Even though I realized something was wrong with me, the VA didn’t. When I received my initial examination to determine a diagnosis and treatment, they told me I was perfectly healthy.

The VA is only now admitting its mistake, and it’s not just me who was affected. It turns out that I’m only one of nearly 25,000 veterans across the country who the VA may have misdiagnosed.

The signs were there, if the VA had been willing to look. A private doctor properly diagnosed me shortly after the VA found nothing wrong. As a result, I was able to obtain treatment for my condition, which had impaired my memory and speech. I had a traumatic brain injury, often referred to as the “signature wound” for soldiers wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This is a crisis that has not received the attention it deserves. Traumatic brain injuries cause problems that stay with you your whole life. Given that they represent over 20 percent of the combat injuries sustained in America’s recent wars — with approximately 350,000 known diagnoses in the last 15 years — the VA should have been prepared. The problem is that although VA policy requires a neurologist, psychiatrist or similarly qualified professional to evaluate incoming patients for brain injuries, nearly 25,000 veterans such as myself were not examined by the appropriate professional. Now, the VA is sending out letters indicating that thousands were potentially misdiagnosed and is now offering new examinations.

There are other veterans whose lives have been even more severely affected by this misdiagnosis. Capt. Charles Gatlin, of Montana, is just one example. The Army diagnosed him with brain injuries as a consequence of his combat injuries. His symptoms were severe, including the loss of processing speed and attention so serious that it forced him to retire from service. Yet when he was evaluated by the VA, the doctor examining him declared that he was no longer impaired.

That diagnosis might have been great news, except it wasn’t true. Worse yet, this false diagnosis meant that Gatlin no longer received the full extent of medical care and compensation benefits his condition merited. He had to fight tooth and nail to reinstate both, and Montana’s state psychology board later found that his diagnosis had been inappropriate.

The doctor examining him had made his determination based on what’s known as a RBANs exam. This test is known for being quick and inexpensive, and sometimes misses signs of traumatic brain injury. Yet even when confronted with these concerns, the VA defended its use.

This cannot be allowed to continue. VA Secretary Robert McDonald rightly acknowledged last month that veterans were let down. The Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act could help the VA do better. The proposal is designed to make the VA function more like the highly specialized care provider it was originally envisioned as, particularly for those with service-connected injuries. Just as importantly, it puts veterans in the pilot seat for their crucial health care decisions.

This proposal would enact much-needed organizational reform at the VA. It turns the current VA integrated medical system into a government-chartered nonprofit corporation that would be governed by a board of directors appointed by Congress and the president. This new model, while still funded and overseen by Congress, would give the VA more flexibility to adapt to the changing needs of the veteran population.

The reorganized VA health care system would be able to function with more self-sufficiency and be responsible solely to its patients. Providers would not have to navigate massive bureaucracy to modernize their equipment and information technology as needed. Further, the VA would be required to provide new levels of price transparency for its services, so veterans know what their treatment really costs. All those reforms will allow veterans to continue going to VA clinics they trust, including state-of-the-art rehabilitation facilities for treating traumatic brain injuries, such as the one in my home state of Minnesota.

Veterans also deserve access to a second opinion — even if that opinion comes from outside the VA. Getting a second opinion guaranteed me the care I needed, and other veterans deserve to know that the VA isn’t their last and only resort. To that end, the Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act expands veterans’ ability to choose when and where they receive their health care. Veterans who prefer care from VA health care providers can continue to receive it, and without any additional cost-sharing. Yet veterans who want to try a non-VA doctor — for whatever reason — would be free to use their VA benefits to receive it.

I’m very grateful for my opportunity to serve because of what it has taught me. Even when things went wrong, I learned from my mistakes and grew from the experience. I hope the VA, which holds millions of veterans’ well-being in its hands, can do the same.

Nathan Anderson, a Green Beret, is national field director of Concerned Veterans for America. He currently serves in the Army Reserve.


stars and stripes videos

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up