A pain in the neck

ONE VETERAN’S STRUGGLE TO OBTAIN PROPER MEDICAL CARE

Vietnam veteran, Ted (not his real name), is currently in the process of working with the Jackson County Veterans Administration to right the wrongs of decades of misdiagnosed and mistreated physical pain. His is a jaw-dropping story of amazing resilience and fortitude in the face of improper medical care, a story that stems back to his basic training in the army in 1963, and carries important lessons, both for veterans returning from service, as well as the general taxpayer footing the bill.

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image from AlwaysBestCare.com

Ted and his wife, Bobbie, are snowbirds. They winter in Arizona near where Ted was born, and summer in the Rogue Valley where both were raised. They park their RV in the mountains, at the secret spot where I go to escape the weather on hot or smoky days. It is there, lounging in front of their RV, that Ted reveals his personal history to me.

One of eleven siblings, Ted and his family left Arizona in search of employment, when he was six years old. En route to Alaska, they fell in love with the Rogue Valley, and stayed. While Ted’s father looked for a job that matched his skills, the rest of the family went to work picking fruit. From that point onward, during his entire childhood, Ted earned income for his family at a variety of tasks.

Ted’s physical woes began at the age of thirteen when, while helping his father clear public land, a chainsaw sliced his leg off at the knee. Miraculously, a doctor in Ashland was able to successfully reattach the limb. A year later, as Ted recuperated in a cast, his father was killed in another work-related accident. In time, Ted regained his ability to walk. However he was not permitted to participate in high school sports. A resentful and rebellious Ted dropped out midway through his senior year of high school, intending to join the army. Despite having a leg injury that disqualified him from sports, seventeen-year-old Ted passed his physical examination, and was inducted into the service. This was just the first of many highly questionable judgments made by military medical personnel on the public dime.

A few weeks later, while in Basic Training at Fort Ord, Ted received his second serious injury— an accidental blow to the head from a rifle butt, the result of a sparring match between two of his colleagues. Despite complaints of neck and back pain, the doctor took no x-rays at that time. He merely placed Ted on three days of Light Duty, after which Ted returned to his unit to complete his basic training.

Recognizing his innate intelligence, the army tapped Ted to become a combat engineer. He learned to defuse bombs, and to both build and blow-up bridges. However, instead of being assigned to a base in Germany as he had expected, in 1965 Ted was shipped off to the Philippines, then Vietnam.

For four months Ted and his unit of engineers accompanied various transport missions that supplied rations and other goods to outlying units throughout Southeast-Asia. They demolished bridges on routes used by the Viet Cong, and protected convoys by defusing booby traps, mines, and unexploded artillery.

This work came with its obvious dangers. First, a more cautious Ted looked on as his foolhardy commander callously kicked a makeshift roadside bomb, therein blowing his leg off. A few days later, the truck in which Ted was riding exploded as it passed over a shape charge. Unaware of any injuries at the time, Ted returned to duty without obtaining proper medical attention or documentation. Finally, as he stood on guard duty, a flash from an exploding flare sent Ted reeling backwards into a foxhole. After crawling out, Ted realized he could no longer move his legs.

For the next five weeks Ted lay on a cot in a hospital tent—again without receiving x-rays or proper diagnoses. Within only a couple of days of regaining use of his legs, doctors discharged Ted from the hospital, without providing him with any regulation military gear. An unsympathetic doctor ordered Ted to walk the several miles’ journey to the location where his unit was stationed.

Luckily for Ted, as he haltingly stumbled toward his unit, who should drive by in a jeep but General Westmoreland, head of the entire Southeast-Asian operations. (The two had interacted previously during a military incident.) Seeing Ted on foot, the General demanded to know why he was out of uniform. Once he heard Ted’s explanation, Westmoreland became infuriated, and immediately insisted upon driving Ted back to the hospital. He chewed out the staff for sending Ted off without proper gear, then personally transported Ted back to his unit.

For the last month of Ted’s tour he was assigned to light duty; in January 1966 he was discharged. Not yet fully aware of any lasting injuries, Ted did not go on record discussing his physical complaints at that time—a fact that would return to complicate his life in the future.

For the next twenty-five years Ted served the Rogue Valley community in a variety of capacities: factory worker, logger, mechanic, fire-fighter, school custodian—to name a few. Sometimes these physically dangerous occupations came with health insurance, while others did not. In several cases, Ted received work-related incapacitating injuries, forcing him off the job.

Ted suffered continuous bouts of back and neck pain, for which he consulted a string of chiropractors. Their treatments provided him with only temporary relief, and no proper diagnosis of his condition. Ted simply braved the pain, while not relating any of his symptoms to his years of military service. Thinking his pain to be the result of his recent injuries, he never considered turning to the Veteran’s Administration for assistance.

It was not until the early 1990’s, that a chiropractor suggested some of Ted’s symptoms might be due to nerve damage from exposure to Agent Orange from his time in Vietnam.

(Agent Orange, a petrochemical defoliant, was sprayed over large areas of jungle during the Vietnam War in order to remove underbrush in which enemy guerrillas might conceal themselves. Within a couple years after the end of the war, the US military determined that exposure to the chemicals caused nerve damage, birth defects, and cancer. Lawsuits and toxic land clean up continue to this day.)

Just as Ted was coming to terms with the possibility his recurrent pain might be related to his active duty, a final work-related accident rendered him permanently disabled.

Carrying a refrigerator down a set of stairs, his partner slipped, and the heavy appliance pushed Ted backwards down 20 stairs. His neck was broken. Amazingly, Ted was not permanently paralyzed. However, the injury set him up for another cycle of misdiagnosis and improper treatments. In the process Ted lost his job and his health insurance. Desperate, Ted was forced to turn to the VA for assistance.

Since the mid-1990’s, Ted has suffered insult upon injury attempting, like so many other veterans, to obtain proper care from the Veterans’ Administration for medical conditions—both military-related and otherwise. Whistle-blower, Dr. Samuel Foote, recently brought the public’s attention to the appointment delay scams, primarily in the Arizona VA system (where Ted sought assistance in the winter months.) Additionally, both in Arizona and Oregon he was at times flagrantly over-medicated or alternately denied pain medications altogether. After one appointment in White City, during which Ted was told to down a dose of each of three different powerful pain medications before leaving, Ted was subsequently stopped by the police for DUI, and stripped of his driver’s license for a year.

Disturbingly, Ted has not been able to obtain much of the needed care or support that he deserves. Critical medical records from his time in the service are missing—presumed to be buried somewhere deep in inaccessible storage files. Without proper paperwork, Ted has only been recognized for a 20% disability claim (based upon the one documented injury from basic training.)

Scheduling of appointments for consults and procedures has been arbitrary and without consideration of inconvenience to the patient. In one particularly galling incident, while Ted and Bobbie were wintering in Arizona, the Portland VA called to inform Ted that he had been scheduled for an operation. After driving the entire, three-state distance, Ted was subjected to hours of consults, only to be unapologetically informed that, because he still had partial mobility, the doctors had decided not to operate after all.

In anger, Ted gave up on the Veteran’s Administration. Then, upon the advice of friends, Ted sought help from the small satellite office for the Jackson County VA located in Medford. With proper assistance, Ted was finally able to negotiate the system a bit more effectively. The clerical workers there sent him to a more sympathetic doctor, who finally took his complaints seriously. He received x-rays, which revealed evidence of several broken vertebrae in his neck—old breaks that has subsequently fused on their own. These could have been the result of the rifle butt accident during Basic Training, the truck explosion in Vietnam, and/or Ted’s tumble down the foxhole.

Even so, without full documentation of the incidents, Ted continues to have difficulty raising his status from 20% to full disability payments. He was informed that signed affidavits of witnesses to the accidents he suffered during the war would help. In an effort to locate witnesses, Ted and Bobbie attended a reunion of his platoon. He recognized only one person he knew from Vietnam—not someone who could support his claims. Ted assumes that most of the men with whom he served did not survive their tour of duty.

“I was really close to those guys. They were like family.” Ted’s eyes well up, and a tear rolls down his cheek. “Bobbie and I visited the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall when it was in Arizona a couple of years ago. I located the name of one person from my unit.

Then I couldn’t take it anymore, and had to turn away.” His voice trails off as he continues, “while I was working for the school district I met one teacher who had also served in Nam. He was so traumatized he couldn’t talk to his class about the war. He hoped that I might be able to do so, but I couldn’t either. Eventually we both sat down, and talked about our experiences. That helped a bit… He got a brain tumor from exposure to Agent Orange. I heard he died a couple of years ago.” Ted unabashedly pulls out a red bandana from his jeans pocket to wipe the tears away.

I am so proud of Ted. He has arrived at a point of self-confidence, knowing that real men—real heroes such as he—are allowed to cry.