When we want to humanize the abstract, we put a face on it. Ideally, the image will personify or at least personalize a vague concept. So, let me put several faces on the Department of Veterans Affairs:
• Shelton Faircloth, the upbeat, dapper African-American man who waits by the bus while others board, like an officer looking after the troops.
• Christy Knight, the slim, pretty brunette who looks absolutely unflappable despite her managerial responsibilities.
• Andy Anderson, the intensely caring guy who always lends a sympathetic ear.
• Bill Cooley, a fatherly, patient listener and VA retiree.
Except for Bill, they all serve the VA in Durham and commute on the same Triangle Transit Authority bus I ride to my job at Measurement, Inc.
As a veteran, I avoided the VA for decades. But each person I named offered to assist me. The VA isn’t just their job; they’re genuinely committed to helping people. I especially thank Shelton for putting me in touch with his coworker to get me enrolled in VA medical care.
Millions of veterans across the nation could display their own galleries of positive, nurturing VA helpers. I hope they do. But because of the VA appointments scandal, detractors want to depersonalize the agency the way a terrorist places a hood over a hostage’s head to objectify the captive as a faceless body – expendable.
The scandal itself requires swift corrective action. We can’t rectify the deaths or mishandled appointments, but we must bring the responsible parties to justice. Where possible, the VA should try to reach atonement with survivors and their families.
Meanwhile, this sore spot has festered into a giant boil, concentrating toxins from many years of patient complaints, minor or major, angrily voiced or grudgingly nurtured. Even people who have never received VA care malign the agency.
In fact, I used to shun the VA.
When I came home from the Army with seven small pieces of metal scattered in my right shoulder and left thigh, I ignored the VA.
Hey, I was bullet-proof – just vulnerable to mortar rounds – and ambivalent toward the military because of Vietnam. With all my heart I supported our troops, but with all my mind I questioned our justification for being there.
I swallowed the line about poor quality of care even after the VA became the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1989, reflecting the growing needs of our veteran population. VA patient rolls will continue to expand while society assimilates veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan – a point totally lost on those seeking to limit or reduce the VA budget.
Case in point: Kevin Sullivan, a fellow commuter who works in finance at Duke Hospital. My five Vietnam mortar attacks in three months paled beside the 30 rocket attacks he experienced while deployed to Iraq.
The VA will also attract veterans who switch from private health care because of high insurance premiums. I have the highest praise for Dr. Stuart Levin, whose persistence matched my wife’s and resulted in UNC Hospitals finding a malignancy in my small bowel, which Dr. Seth Weinreb successfully removed.
But my run-ins with private insurers – well before the Affordable Care Act, by the way – still leave me seething. Shelton was a godsend connecting me with the VA a year ago.
VA health professionals have provided topnotch care, from my pleasant annual visits with family nurse practitioner Lisa Sanford to that dreaded procedure, conducted by Dr. Helen Fasanya-Uptagraft, to check for cancer.
To paraphrase the Monkees, “I saw their faces. Now I’m a believer.”
VA health professionals devoted to their jobs deserve recognition. Despite the black mark of the appointments scandal, we must keep supporting the VA.
A nation passionate about waging war must be equally compassionate in caring for our men and women who return less than whole. Any legislator who voted to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan but votes against increased VA funding is irresponsible. If you take the action – war – face the consequences – the wounded.
But what about the federal budget?
Let’s be even blunter: If we lavish our resources on sending men and women into combat and then tighten the purse strings for healing the wounded, we may keep out precious budget intact, but we will be morally bankrupt.
Veterans have looked after our country on foreign soil. We need to look after them at home.
William Stroupe lives in Raleigh.