"Less than half way through the current fiscal year, Veterans
Affairs medical facilities across the country have already run out of money
and face huge deficits, an emergency situation if there ever was one,"
--Disabled American Veterans National Commander James E. Sursely
The Administration has proposed one of the most tight-fisted, miserly budgets
for veterans programs in recent memory, said the 1.2 million member Disabled
American Veterans (DAV). Instead of providing adequate funds for the Department
of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical system, the budget proposes to shift the cost
burden onto the backs of veterans, making health care more expensive and even
less accessible for millions of America's defenders. "The VA medical system
has been strained to the breaking point over the years because its appropriation
has failed to keep pace with the skyrocketing costs of health care and increased
patient loads," said National Commander James E. Sursely. "As a result
VA facilities across the country are cutting staff and limiting services even
as the number of veterans seeking care is on the rise."
--DAV Press release, February 8, 2005
PVA is disappointed, and I'm highly upset, by the Senate's failure to provide
health care funding to sick and disabled veterans, as well as the new veterans
returning from overseas. I can't believe that the Senate would do something
like this. Taking care of veterans is an ongoing cost of our national defense
and our fight against terrorism.
Veterans are being constantly assured by the VA and those in Congress that the VA has the money it needs to meet its responsibilities, but every day we see reports that veterans are being turned away, other veterans are facing unconscionable delays, and entire health care networks are running deficits as a result of attempting to provide health care. Unfortunately, the Senate's vote against veterans sends a clear message to the men and women serving in the military and those contemplating service - we will send you off to fight our wars and defend America, but we don't want to care for you properly when you come home.
--PVA President Randy L. Pleva, Sr
"The administration's budget is troubling in many ways because it's an
obvious attempt to balance part of the nation's deficit on the backs of a disabled
and aging military veteran population," "It was the blood and sweat
of the American military man and woman that ultimately created this country,
saved our Union, and helped free the world from tyranny," he said. "In
return, the only thing we ever asked for, as Teddy Roosevelt said, 'was to be
given a square deal afterwards.'
--John Furgess VFW National Commander testifing before a joint meeting of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs.
Caption reads "U.S. troops on the Cambodian front (top), and in a stateside VA hospital (below)
Besides the dead, there are the wounded: 275,000 of them to date. A man hit in Vietnam has twice as good a chance of surviving as he did in Korea and World War II-helicopter teams evacuate the wounded faster, often within minutes, support hospitals perform miraculous repairs on injuries that tend to be more devastating than ever before. But having been saved by the best field medicine in history and given initial treatment in first-rate military facilities, one out of every seven U.S. servicemen wounded in Vietnam is fated to pass into the bleak backwaters of our Veterans Administration hospitals.
With 166 separate institutions, the VA hospital system is the biggest in the world. The 800,000 patients it treats in a year, mainly men wounded in earlier wars, range from cardiac to psychiatric cases. It is disgracefully understaffed, with standards far below those of an average community hospital. Many wards remain closed for want of personnel and the rest are strained with overcrowding. Facilities for long-term treatment and rehabilitation, indispensable for the kind of paralytic injuries especially common in this war of land mines and boobytraps, are generally inferior. At Miami's VA hospital, while sophisticated new equipment sits idle for lack of trained personnel, patients may wait hours for needed blood transfusions. At the VA's showplace hospital in Washington, D.C. a single registered nurse may minister to as many as 80 patients at a time. At the Wadsworth VA Hospital in Los Angeles, doctors who work there describe ward conditions as "medieval" and "filthy."
Veterans Administration Director Donald E. Johnson insists publicly that veterans receive "care second to none." The evidence is overwhelmingly against him. A five-month inquiry by a Senate subcommittee chaired by California's Alan Cranston has documented gross inadequacies and laid the main blame directly on a series of cutbacks in the VA medical budget. This sum presently amounts to roughly $1.6 billion a year, somewhat less than the cost of one month's fighting in Vietnam. Additional appropriations of $122 million for next year await probable congressional approval and could help ease the immediate crisis. But within the next 12 months 16,000 more men from Vietnam are expected to come under the Veterans Administration's care.
In an enema room of the Bronx VA Hospital, disabled spinal injury patients wait up to four hours to be attended by a single aide.
Conditions at Wadsworth VA Hospital in Los Angeles were documented by doctors for a Senate subcommittee. Above, a doctor giving a spinal tap braces his patient against a breadbox. In a cardiology ward, on the top floor of a 40-year-old brick building (below), a hand-lettered sign is posted imploringly over a patient's bed
"It's like you've been put in jail or been punished forsomething"
'The siege at Khesanh had been lifted and Marine Marke Dumpert had gone back
to Quangtri not feeling much other than the choking sensation of knowing he
had been incredibly lucky. He had been in one of the toughest battles of the
war and he had survived it. Hardened and immunized by the experience, Dumpert,
then a private, volunteered to accompany a corporal and a lance corporal
on a routine check of the front lines. He had been in Vietnam for three months.
That was the day he was hit.
"As we headed out from the camp," Marke remembers, "I was seated up front by the door, the lance corporal beside me and the corporal driving. I heard a crack, a sound I'd heard a lot at Khesanh. You start to sweat when that happens because you get so you can tell how close a shell is. I could tell it was one of those six-foot Russian-made rockets because they sound like a freight train crashing. Just when I took a breath ... it happened."
Blasted off the road, Dumpert was thrown into coiled barbed wire. After him came the truck, rolling over him and grinding him into the barbed wire. The pain was terrible. He felt a sensation of white heat, like a light bulb exploding in his eyes. His neck was already broken but in some miraculous way he remained conscious.
Luckily the truck was not far from the camp when it was hit, so help soon arrived. Dragged out and freed from the tangle of barbed wire, Dumpert was rushed to a nearby field hospital and immobilized with sandbags on each side of his head. A Medevac helicopter removed him to a hospital ship that was cruising in the South China Sea. The whole episode, from injury to hospital ship, had taken only 75 minutes. Four days later, Medevac surgeons operated to fuse Dumpert's broken neck back in place. Then they told him: he would survive but he would be paralyzed for the rest of his life from the neck downwards.
After surgery on the medical ship, Marke was flown to the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. There they helped him to learn how to breathe all over again, and he began physical therapy. "They did a great job," Marke says. "The volunteers and the USO people were terrific. Even among the in-service corpsmen there's discipline. If you don't get attended to by one of these corpsmen, a complaint might just mean somebody's weekend pass.
In September of 1968, the time came for transfer to a Veterans Administration hospital. For Dumpert, as for other wounded, it meant that his condition had been improved and stabilized to the point where extended care could begin. But, as it turned out, the Bronx VA Hospital was nothing to look forward to.
"The day they moved me into that gloomy 3-C ward, I knew I was back at the battlefield," Dumpert says. "It was the misery of Khesanh all over again. I spent over a month and a half in an 8x21-foot bunker in Khesanh. I remember the smell of four other guys plus myself, when we had to use water to drink, not to wash with, when we lived with garbage rather than dump it and get hit by a sniper. But at least in Khesanh, you could joke and be lighthearted. Death was around you but there was still the possibility of getting out. Here in this ward, living with the misery of six neglected guys who can't wash themselves, can't even get a glass of water for themselves, who are left unattended for hours . . . it's sickening.
"Nobody should have to live in these conditions," Dumpert insists.
"We're all hooked up to urine bags, and without enough attendants
to empty them, they spill over the floor. It smells and cakes something awful.
The aides don't commit themselves wholeheartedly, but with what they earn
a year why should they? I've laid in bed on one side from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.,
without getting moved or washed. When and if you do get a shower, you come back
and you're put into bed on the same sweaty sheets you started with. It's like
you've been put in jail, or you've been punished for something."
The rats were worst. "I had been sleeping on my stomach," Dumpert recalls. "It wasn't 11 o'clock, but I had closed my eyes. I suddenly awoke to find a rat on my hand. I can't move my hand, so I tried to jerk my shoulders. I screamed and the rat jumped slowly off my bed. When the aide arrived, I told him. He said, 'Aw, you must be drunk.' Nobody has done anything to this day, so some of the amputees who are not totally disabled have taken to setting traps, to protect us . If you're a nervous-system injury you can't feel anything, and you could get bitten in the night and not know it."
Escape from his predicament seems altogether impossible. Dumpert hopes to finish high school and has a dream of becoming a lawyer, despite his disability. But his will to struggle has been seriously impaired by neglect and frustration. "I feel that the way we Vietnam veterans are being treated," he says, "is abnormal. I regret having to say this, but now I have nothing but disgust for my country. I used to hate the guys who ran off to Canada to avoid the draft. Now I don't hate them. I don't like them, but I respect them for what they did. If I had known what I know now, I would never have enlisted. I don't mean just my injury, but the insensitivity and lack of care. They would have had to drag me into the service kicking. It makes me wonder about Vietnam-about whether the people I saw die, and people like me who are half dead, fought for nothing.
.At above and below, hospital aides strap him into a brace so he can stand. He is so helpless that he needs almost constant care, but the hospital can't give it.
The VA hospital in the Bronx is more antiquated than most. Its two main buildings date back to the turn of the century and eight quonset huts are left over from World War II. But the conditions inside are typical of many facilities in the VA system. There is inadequate space for clinical labs, storage and day rooms. Visitors and other traffic must pass through active operating areas. Kitchens are ill kept and littered. Personnel shortages are so severe that during the night shift one registered nurse must watch over three wards containing 140 patients. The hospital's frustrated director, Dr. Abraham M. Kleinman, can only plead helplessness. "We're just not being funded in a way that we can adequately give and fulfill our services. We can't take care of patients as we would like."
In a partitionless ward of the Bronx VA Hospital a disarray of dirty linen is allowed to pile up around a quadriplegic's bed while the patient himself lies naked, unable to clothe himself after a shower.
The Bronx hospital is so full of rodents that a trap set on any given evening usually produces a mouse or rat by morning. Marine veteran Parcel Wheeler of Scranton, Pa., above, a paraplegic who saw combat at Ducphu, hasn't yet awakened to see the trapped mouse next to his bed. But the hospital's most desperate problem is for more attending personnel.
In the paraplegic wards above,, a totally crippled patient must depend on a buddy who still has the use of his arms to get a sheet thrown over him. Staff shortages are just as severe in the surgery, general medicine and psychiatric wards at the Bronx VA, as well as in technical departments. In fact, there are 1,100 fewer staff in VA medical programs today than in 1965.
At the Bronx VA Hospital Marine veteran Frnk Stoppiello, wounded in the Ashau Valley in Vietnam, gives a cigarette to quadripegic Andrew Kmetz, an Army Veteran, as they wait for treatment. Because of overcrowding, they must share a corner with trash cans.
WHEN WILL WE EVER LEARN