‘The epitome of bureaucracy’: Support services frustrating, Carroll County veterans say
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on the veterans of Carroll County.
When he entered the Navy in 1968, Mike Warkentin was promised three things: healthcare, education and a place to be buried.
Today, Warkentin said, those services are disappearing. There’s not much more space at the Fayetteville National Cemetery, Warkentin said, and the United States Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t serve everyone it should.
“I’ve heard of people who got booted out of the VA system because they made too much money,” said Warkentin, a Vietnam veteran. “Well, we were promised that care, and those promises should be held accountable.”
Army veteran Patrick Kirby said he receives care through the VA, saying he’s totally medically disabled and gets compensated for 60 percent.
“I was told by a VA rep that was because I had a college degree and both arms and legs,” Kirby said. “I don’t mean to paint everyone with the same brush, but overall, if the VA were graded, it cannot be graded any higher than ‘F.’ ”
The VA is a bureaucracy, Kirby said, and that’s not a good thing.
“It’s just the epitome of a government bureaucracy where maintaining the bureaucracy is more important than the mission for which the bureaucracy was created in the first place,” Kirby said.
An example of that, he said, is the new VA hospital in Denver. That hospital cost $1.5 billion, Kirby said.
“Denver doesn’t need new hospitals,” Kirby said. “The VA has a focus that’s largely centered on brick and mortar instead of targeting funds for services.”
Kirby said he recently went to the VA hospital in Fayetteville and was told they couldn’t treat him because his records were in Temple, Texas.
“They said they had no ability to communicate directly to see those records, yet they could spend $1.5 billion on a new hospital,” Kirby said. “That kind of stuff happens every single day to hundreds of thousands of veterans, to the point where it makes you feel like you have to beg for the help and service you earned through your sacrifice.”
Carroll County veterans service officer Alex Brown said it can be difficult to transfer records from one hospital to another.
“The VA is a massive system. You can request records from other states, but it does take a while,” Brown said. “Normally, they don’t have a problem with it and they’ll send the records, but the request has to be put in by the veteran’s healthcare team.”
Veterans can generally find sufficient medical care in their community, Kirby said, but they need so much more after their service ends. Psychological help is especially important, he said.
“You experience this tremendous personal and psychological conflict, and then you come back into the world and what you’ve experienced is very hard to reconcile with what hometown people think and feel,” Kirby said.
Around 22 veterans commit suicide each day, said Army veteran Chuck Welch. Kirby said the VA isn’t very sensitive to veterans who consider ending their lives. When you call the VA, Kirby said, an automated message provides the phone number for the national suicide hotline.
“They say it one time, which means if you’re that veteran, you’re not going to have any chance to copy that number down,” Kirby said. “Why can’t they have something that says, ‘If you’re having a mental health crisis, press 7?’ ”
Welch remembered when his service ended, saying there’s not much social support available. During his service, Welch said, he bonded with his fellow soldiers.
“When you get out, it’s like you just left part of your family,” Welch said. “You don’t have these kinds of connections you built in the military in the real world. There’s no social structure to help the military people coming out. We don’t have the support we need.”
He continued, “The guys with PTSD had to fight like hell to start to get support. And the guys with Agent Orange poisoning … well, you have to die to prove there’s an issue. We had a man in our community who got support for Agent Orange two weeks before he died.”
There are some local support groups for veterans, Brown said, including American Legion Post 9 and Elks Lodge No. 1042. If the county had a shelter for homeless veterans, Brown said, support services would improve across the board.
“Then we’d have a stable address where these veterans would be at,” Brown said. “They could start getting monthly compensation to get back on their feet. A lot of these veterans who are homeless are disabled, and most of it is related to their time in service.”
Cold War veteran Ferguson Stewart said there’s just not enough money for the VA to support everyone, saying the VA needs to do its job or undergo privatization. The way the VA runs now, Stewart said, is convoluted and bureaucratic.
“It’s like your house is burning, but your insurance agent is there trying to figure out what he doesn’t have to pay for,” Stewart said. “That’s what the VA does. They’re more concerned about the expenditure of your care than the care itself, and that’s wrong.”
Brown said the VA hospital in Fayetteville is ranked the best in the nation and provides top-tier service.
“Everybody thinks the VA is horrible — that the doctors are horrible and they’re just there for a paycheck,” Brown said, “but we have the best-rated VA hospital down the road from us. Over the past five years, that hospital has improved dramatically.”
The VA is easy to navigate, Brown said, if you have somebody to help you.
“That’s what I’m here for. I’m here to help and process the claims for them,” Brown said. “Anything I can do to help them … that’s what I’ll do.”
The VA is improving, Stewart said, but it’s got a long way to go. No matter what, he said, those who served should never feel like they’re asking for welfare when they contact the VA for help.
“When these guys took that oath, they were given promises and the government needs to make those promises good. At the end of the day, it comes down to money,” Stewart said. “Yeah, it does cost money, but there’s so much more at stake than that.”