Who Supports the Troops: Can They Even Get Healthcare?
During my visit to the Disabled American Veterans Transportation Office, I met with two young veterans. Michael Thomas, 25, a member of the Navy since December 2002, was on the ship that fired the first tomahawks on Baghdad in March 2003. He was discharged for psychological problems three months later. Dennis Hammons, 30, was a member of the Marine Corps from June 1993 to August 1997. Hammons was discharged in 1996 after he experienced a parachute malfunction and fell 500 feet at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Hammons suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome and has knee, back and neck injuries.
Tell me about your experience on the ship? What was the discharge process like?
Michael Thomas: I caught myself in a bad psychological problem. My chief was mad because he said he could have done more for me if I went to him first. He had already showed me what he could do. He was gonna make sure I wouldn't say anything. Whenever I went to medical, I told the chief I was doing badly and he sent me to ER. They sent me back to the ship. Then I went to a family support center. Two days later, I was in the psych ward at the hospital.
What were your main duties on the ship?
Michael Thomas: I was a gunner's mate. I worked on small arms and I was a supervisor for a five-inch 54 gun mount. My ship was the first one that launched the tomahawks.
Did you ever set foot on land?
Michael Thomas: No, we weren't allowed to dock.
What do you think had the most impact on you?
Michael Thomas: I was on a watch up there in the gun mount. They fired from the front launcher so I knew right then that something was going on. I sat right next to the launcher. The missiles were shooting all over the place.
What happened after you were released and finally made it home?
Michael Thomas: I didn't know where to go. My cousin's husband, who was recently out of the Marine Corps, told me where I needed to go and where I needed to file a claim. I didn't know any of that.
When you were discharged, did you ask your superiors about the process?
Michael Thomas: They send you to a three-hour course and give you a book. If you don't ask questions, you won't get the answers. Everyone is really excited to go home so they don't ask questions. I asked questions about whether I would have to pay my reenlistment bonus back. I also asked about my leave time. I got paid for 40 days leave. Back in May of 2005, I got a letter stating I needed to pay back my reenlistment bonus, plus the leave, which I was entitled to. I went to my Congressman about that and got a letter saying I don't have to pay back the leave, but I still have to pay back my reenlistment.
Tell me about your experience with the VA.
Michael Thomas: I'm still trying to get my claim. I filed it in December. If it wasn't for my cousin, I wouldn't know what to do.
How are you doing now? Are you feeling better?
Michael Thomas: I'm seeing two psychologists. I'm on three different medications that I take daily. I feel a little better, but I still have days that aren't that great.
Would you mind telling me about those days?
Michael Thomas: I usually isolate myself in my own room. I usually don't talk to anyone. I just think about all the things I've been through. I usually cry and get depressed. No one sees it because I isolate myself. Since I don't have a percentage of disability, I have to work to pay all my bills and pay back my reenlistment.
Are you working?
Michael Thomas: Yes, I do work study. I go to college full-time and I work at a convenience store on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
How much do you have to pay back for your reenlistment?
Michael Thomas: Altogether you get $6500 non-taxable for reenlisting. I got $4500 of it. I don't have the money to pay it all back at one time. I have to pay a $135 a month minimum.
Dennis Hammons: You really need to know what questions to ask in order to get the information you need. I was not in Iraq or Afghanistan. I'm one of the people that falls through the cracks. I was in during Clinton's police actions. I was all over Liberia and Rwanda. I got stabbed and there's no record of it. I'm not eligible for benefits because it didn't happen during a conflict. They wrap a lot of that stuff under humanitarian awards. As soon as I got hurt, I was treated like a piece of crap even though I was an E4.
What's an E4?
Dennis Hammons: Corporal. I was one of the prestigious duty people. I guarded the president at Camp David during my first year and a half. I was handed a book of federal benefits. It doesn't even tell you how to file. It just says, go to the VA Regional office to file a claim if you're disabled. I was discharged with a 10 percent disability for an injury to left knee. They would not rate all my disabilities for the Marine Corps. If they would have, I would have been retired. My claim took 14 to 15 months. It took me four months to get into the VA medical system. It was different back then. I could still see my doctor even though I hadn't gotten my card. Today you can't. It takes 90 days to get your card.
Dennis Hammons: It's just a VA card and you're only eligible if you've been in combat. You only get two free years of healthcare. My experience with the VA has been horrible. I go to a private doctor for pain meds. I never had a problem in Washington DC. If I need to see a doctor here, it takes three to four months to get an appointment. I took my son down a slide, which wasn't real smart and I couldn't hardly walk. I had pain shooting down my arm and leg. That happened in April. I got in the second week of July. That's how it is here.
How does it make you feel when you hear politicians talk about veterans?
Dennis Hammons: They need to put their money where their mouth is. They're liars. Look at their voting records. If they supported our troops, Iraqi war veterans that come back with missing legs wouldn't have to wait six months to get an appointment. Until that's taken care of, they're lying. You don't send people to war without taking care of their injuries. These politicians don't think about it like that. If it was their sons, what would they think? Also, here's something else that gets no attention. If you're a disabled veteran, you're not getting a job. I put diabled veteran on my job applications and couldn't get a job. As soon as I put veteran and left off disabled, I got a job. I know personally, I'm not letting my kids join the military and have their lives destroyed.