Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The VA Jungle...

It's pretty tough to admit this but I've been hooked on painkillers since 1975. Oh, the pain is there; my body is a temple that looks like the Parthenon. Too many car and motorcycle accidents for four men. Broken bones, knee shattered, ribs cracked, neck broken and I've been knocked unconscious at least 7 times. So I've been taking narcotics to ease the pain for a long, long time. Trouble is they're hard to control.

Since I'm 100% disabled from Vietnam, the VA sends me my meds by mail and half the time they're late. Every time the pain meds are late, I have to deal with withdrawal symptoms till they get here. Let me tell you, it ain't no fun at all. Sometimes they're a week late, three days late, once it was two weeks! Whatever the case, I keep going back to them.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago I said enough is enough and I'm going to get help to deal with this crap. So, I called my doctor at the VA, who is 60 miles away, and told him that I needed help. An inpatient program somewhere. He said that he would get right on it and would call me back as soon as he knew something. No more than a couple of days he told me. He said that he would put his most efficient nurse on it, too.

Five days later I hadn't heard a thing, so I called. In the VA you can't call your doctor directly, you have to go through a communications center who then relays the message. It's a real pain in the butt, especially if you've got a problem that needs immediate attention. I explained that I needed to talk to my doctor, and that he was supposed to have called me back a few days ago. He took down my information and said he'd send a note.

The next day, around dinner time, he called. He said he was sorry for not getting back to me but things were busy. Whatever. He explained that he'd done some checking and that the Battle Creek VA hospital had a program that fit my needs. They were going to call me, he said, and that I should hear from them shortly. I thanked him and hung up. I told my wife what was going on and she said that she was proud of me. That meant a lot.

A week and a half later, today as a matter of fact, a nurse at the hospital called me. She informed me that she would be conducting an intake interview that would take about half an hour. For about that long she asked me questions about my health, my meds and my life in general. It was fairly in-depth. After I explained to her about my back, that I couldn't walk more than a minute at a time before the pain became excruciating and my legs went numb, she hesitated. Do you mean that you can't climb stairs then? I laughed and said, in your dreams! We had developed a good rapport by then.

I waited, listening to the silence on the other end. Finally she said that she would love to help me but they had no beds on the first floor. There were several flights of stairs that I would have to climb. Since I would be unable to do that, I couldn't join their program. I asked her, do you mean that because I am, in essence, crippled, I can't receive treatment for a drug addiction that they, the VA, had supported for years?

Just a note here: the VA is very supportive of the troops and gives us all the pain killers we want. It keeps us quiet. Just like in Vietnam when the CIA - with Air America - was funneling heroin through the Viet Cong to our soldiers. To keep them quiet so they wouldn't upset the apple cart with protests against the war. It worked, pretty much. But, as an MP, I had to respond to near riots when the government insisted on detoxing the troops they had hooked on heroin, over a three day period. Cold turkey. It was horrible.

Anyway, she said again that she was sorry and there was nothing that she could do. I asked her, what about the troops coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan missing limbs or other horrific body injuries? Would they, too, find no help when it was time to quit the painkillers? I listened to silence again. Mr. Fowler, she finally said, it was nice talking to you and then she hung up. Denise and I just looked at each other in shock. We didn't know what to say!

We live in a remote area of northern Michigan, twenty miles in every direction (except east to Lake Huron), away from civilization. There are no AA or NA programs up here and I would have to drive 120 miles round trip to find one. The only detox programs are private and very expensive, far beyond our ability to pay. The VA has done it again, we said. On our own once more.

For those of you who have never experienced the Veteran's Administration, it's a wonderful thing (we need a sarcasm font here) that is dedicated to serving our veterans. When you apply for benefits for service related disabilities, they automatically turn you down and tell you that your records don't exist. I spent five futile years trying to get mine until a friend told me to call one of the advocacy groups, who would represent me. I called the Military Order of the Purple Heart and six months later I had my disability authorized.

We all care about the troops fighting two wars, but we should be very concerned about the treatment they're going to get when they get home. Oh, yeah, the news reports show amputees working hard with a support crew, to enable them to lead a good and productive way of life. But that's the media. The reality is much different. Much worse.

There are not enough VA hospitals, especially for those vets who don't live in a major city. To get any treatment or evaluation, I have to drive 300 miles to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Driving distances is pretty hard on me so I avoid it as much as I can. Some vets have 1500 miles to go to reach a treatment center.

The point I'm trying to make has nothing to do with me. I'll figure it out and Denise and I will do this on our own. Once I get past the first week or two it's going to be no problem. The point is the VA and the way they treat vets. They have hundreds, if not thousands, of policies and regulations that they never tell you about. When you don't follow procedure because you knew nothing about it, they say tough, you should have asked. Asked what? I didn't even know there was a question!

I want you to speak up about this if you have a chance. If you know a veteran who is trying to fight through the system, have them call me. My number is 989-734-2908. With luck maybe I'll be able to help them. I always count on spirit (luck) to guide me...


  1. Larry - My heart is with you and I'll keep you in my prayers. I follow your writings and appreciate your insight into life. I believe that veterans do not receive the support and honor that you deserve - It's horrendous. Two of my Uncles who served in Vietnam have similar stories to yours... both are receiving disability and it is a miracle that they are getting that after what they've gone through to make it happen. I appreciate your service to our country and pray that you will find the resources you need to support the challenge that you are facing... you're in my thoughts and prayers! From, Jennifer (a reader in Northern Indiana)

  2. Jennifer, I don't know what to say! Just when I think no one is reading what I write, you come along and prove me wrong. I am so glad I am getting my messages out and understood; I try to make them as entertaining as possible, but this one makes it impossible to do that.

    I am so appreciative of your words and support. You don't know! I will overcome this challenge as I have overcome many in my life. Like we used to say in 'Nam, "it's just a thang." Tell your uncles I said "welcome home." Love and Light, Larry