This I Believe

Luis - Brooklyn, New York
Entered on November 27, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: war

A thankless Thanksgiving…

On September 11, 2007, I departed the U.S. Army after 17 years of honorable service including two tours in Iraq. Since then, I have sadly come to understand first-hand the broken nature of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the hollow words of our nation’s leaders.

After leaving the military, it took two months to get an appointment with a primary care physician. That step was crucial because without it, referrals for specialists are not possible. I need physical and occupational therapy for my back, neck and right knee which were all wounded in an attack in December 2003 and exacerbated during another tour from March 2005 to March 2006. Between and after deployments the woefully under-strength Army and unsustainable operations tempo (OPTEMPO) did not afford me the opportunity to recover on active duty from a gradually deteriorating state of physical and mental health.

Like hundreds of thousands of other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, multiple times a day, I experience powerful and deeply disturbing flashbacks as a result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Among the most vivid and terrifying flashbacks are those about large riots that broke out and where the lives of my men were put in jeopardy. Other ghastly memories include body parts strewn across marketplaces and the horrifying sounds of children screaming. And then, there is the incident where a number of insurgent assassins wielding knives and hand grenades sent me to a field surgical hospital after nearly killing me.

Several weeks ago, a VA psychiatrist put me on medication. This included sleeping pills to help control my insomnia. The anxiety and panic attacks stemming from PTSD have caused an irregular biorhythm that keeps me vacillating throughout the day between hypervigilance and lethargy. The consistent decline of my confidence worries me a great deal too. I do remember a time in the not-so-distant past when I felt comfortable around strangers and really enjoyed the company of those whom I loved.

Few days go by without painful heartburn, diarrhea and bizarre muscle twitching. God only knows why this happens, but perhaps it has something to do with the combination of numerous anthrax vaccinations and periodic exposure to oil fires and depleted uranium munitions. Maybe it has something to do with the high dose of antibiotics they told us to take every day in 2003, but – without explanation – have since stopped giving our warriors. Or, it is possibly attributable to the several bad episodes of “Saddam’s Revenge” brought on by frequent dining with Iraqi leaders and laypeople. Still yet, it might have something to do with a few chemical artillery shells (presumed to have contained sarin gas) we found buried amidst IED and weapons caches.

Last week, I underwent a preliminary screening for Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The test resulted in a positive finding. The results of the second test are due in a few weeks’ time. I started experiencing debilitating migraine headaches upon returning from my first tour in 2004. Lately, these migraines have increased both in intensity and frequency. Very recently, I was unnerved because while in front of a rare guest to my home, a sudden migraine induced violent vomiting. I couldn’t help but think, “What’s wrong with me? Am I losing my mind?”

My short-term memory has also been seriously affected. On occasions when I leave my home, I’ll head out and an hour later, find myself not knowing where I am or how I got there. Worse yet, I forget what people tell me during a given conversation and then am frustrated because I cannot remember what was shared.

I go to the VA Hospital several times a week for assorted medical visits. At present, I am unable to work because of the regularity and length of these visits and the overall poor status of my health.

My personal savings are rapidly dwindling. A letter I wrote recently, appealing to Senator Clinton for assistance with the VA, managed to push the VA into rendering a decision on my disability benefits. But my VA benefits don’t even cover my monthly rent, let alone pay for food. By the time I get an appeal submitted next week – and processed several months from now – it may be for naught.

The entire system is pathetic. I now fully understand why hundreds of thousands of America’s veterans are homeless and heartbroken. And I also understand why many fall prey to drug and alcohol addiction while others commit suicide.

Alone in my small Brooklyn apartment, my Thanksgiving dinner was a tall bottle of Bacardi. Here’s to you “Compassionate Conservatives.” Thanks for having my back…