Who Supports the Troops: Can They Even Get to the Hospital?
Non-profits across the country are working to help veterans deal with physical and mental problems, as well as find jobs and housing. When we were in Muskogee, I stumbled upon a transportation service run by the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), a group of approximately 23,000 Oklahoma veterans who have suffered some degree of disability while serving in the Armed Forces. Last year, the service transported over 24,000 veterans to and from the VA Hospital. The DAV expects the number of vets transported will increase by 3,000 veterans a year. The DAV in Muskogee transports 200 vets per month. I recently met with Bill Huber, DAV Hospital Coordinator and Korean Vet, and Jennifer Hammons, a newly hired coordinator. Jennifer's husband Dennis is a disabled veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome and has knee, back and neck problems.
Tell me about the DAV Center and what you do here.
Bill Huber: Our primary job here at the hospital is to provide transportation for those veterans that have no other means of getting to their appointments. We have vans with volunteer drivers that pick the patients up and take them to their appointments. We also file claims for veterans. We started this program back in 1985 when Congress cut the budget for the VA. The DAV decided that there were so many veterans out there that had no means of getting to their appointments, so we started the program.
Are you connected with the VA?
Bill Huber: We're not. We depend on private donations from veterans and citizens. We also have fundraisers.
Jennifer Hammons: We're getting ready to have an auction next May. I don't have the heart to sit there and tell a veteran, 'I'm sorry we can't come and get you today.' I can't do it. I'll do whatever I can to try to get the money we need.
How much money do you need?
Bill Huber: What we are raising money for is to buy the vans. Once we buy the vans, we donate them to the VA and the VA provides the gas and maintenance on the vans. We also have volunteers that drive their own vehicles and we pay them mileage.
Jennifer Hammons: We were told that we have to cut back our rides by 45 percent because of lack of funding.
Bill Huber: It never came to fruition because our director wouldn't sign off on it.
Have you seen the number of requests increase as men and women return from Iraq and Afghanistan?
Jennifer Hammons: Slowly. There are a lot of older veterans here. We pick up one man who lives three hours away. We do daily trips to Oklahoma City, which is close to two hours away from here. We pick up a young veteran three times a week for physical therapy.
Bill Huber: We cover the entire eastern part of Oklahoma.
Why is funding so difficult to come by for healthcare and the services you provide?
Bill Huber: I blame it on Congress. I think Congress believes the VA spends a lot of their money on frivolous things they don't need. I don't see that here. Some veterans say it's the best healthcare and others aren't happy with it. I've always received good healthcare from the VA, but her husband doesn't get the healthcare that he deserves. I blame most of that on Congress for not funding the VA. It's been underfunded for years and years. What kind of people do we have running our government? So many are non-veterans. The ones that are veterans aren't supporting the veterans.
I've noticed that healthcare for troops is a partisan issue. Why is that? Republicans say they support the troops, but their voting records don't.
Bill Huber: You find that all the time. Democrats are the ones supporting the troops. Republicans aren't supporting us. I'm 71-years-old and I've been around a while. The problem is veterans don't protest. We take what we get. I'm the president of our DAV chapter and I tell my people to write to their congressmen. They just sit back and let our lobbyists do it. They can't do it by themselves; we have to help them.
Can you name any politicians that consistently stand up for the troops and try to increase healthcare?
Bill Huber: Our senators consistently vote against veterans issues and one of them is a veteran. He'll tell you he supports veterans, but he never does.
Which senator is that?
Bill Huber: Senator Inhofe.
Jennifer Hammons: Coburn is the same way. My husband has had numerous situations with Coburn. He's actually a local doctor. He doesn't care about veterans. He would rather label condoms and get it to where minors have to tell their parents they want birth control. He would rather make the veterans pay a co-pay when most of these veterans barely get by.
Bill Huber: He wants to do away with the VA Medical Centers to where we have to go to private doctors. What's gonna happen there is they'll give us a medical card and the only thing that we can be treated for would be for a service connected condition. If we had any other condition, we'd have to pay for it. Here we don't. I'm opposed to issuing the card because a lot of doctors don't know how to deal with a lot of the problems we have. I'm in full support of keeping the VA hospitals, but they need to provide better care.
This issue gets very little attention. Do you think it's because we're shielded from the realities of war? Bush hasn't gone to any funerals and we rarely see coffins on the news.
Jennifer Hammons: People are afraid to know what's going on. They keep saying they'll send our boys back, but never give us a timeframe. That's why I'm glad my cousin got a medical discharge. We're still trying to get him the care he needs. I'm married to a disabled vet and I know what these guys are going through. I'm hanging in there. All we can do is try our best. There's only so much we can do as an organization. We try to help vets with the VA system, but the VA gives us the same runaround that they're giving the veterans.
I've seen a lot of "Support Our Troops" ribbons around here. Do the locals know what's going on?
Bill Huber: They don't support veterans in this town. The biggest employing agency in this town is the VA. They have over 500 employees here and you'd think that they would support veterans. We have a breakfast fundraiser once every three months and the only ones that will come are our members. We have that fundraiser so we can go on with our projects, but we don't get support. That's disheartening.