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Iraq Vets

When Wounded Vets Come Home

Thus began a nine-month campaign to keep Rory at Walter Reed, with its depth of expertise in treating battlefield injuries. “You have to present a case, and it’s almost like being an attorney,” Cynthia says. “When I wasn’t with Rory, I was on the Internet researching. I was in the library. I was writing letters.” She attended meetings with hospital administrators. She sought the support of Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), who became a friend and an ally. And she collared politicians who visited Walter Reed for what she calls photo ops with the wounded. “They would come to Rory’s door, and I would say, ‘Who are you? Give me your business card. What can you do for my son today?’” All that “badgering,” as she calls it, paid off: Rory was not discharged until he felt well enough to enter an inpatient VA rehab program in Palo Alto, California.

Assistant Defense Secretary Casscells says he’s aware of early-discharge complaints, which he concedes are “legitimate for some people.” But he says he doesn’t know how widespread the problem is. “There’s a tendency of people to send good news up the chain,” he says. “Some of the bad news doesn’t reach me." Casscells says the Defense Department does try to transfer service members from the military system to the VA system "as soon as it's in [the patient’s] interest," because many VA hospitals "are more modern than Army hospitals." But he adds that parents need to speak up when they feel their children are being ill served. "On your team you need a champion," he says. "You need a nag, a hysteric, someone with computer skills, and someone who can read the legal fine print. It's daunting," he admits.

Parents of injured combatants agree that advocating for their wounded children is one of the hardest—and most essential—parts of what they do. "I'm not badmouthing the armed forces," says Colorado Springs resident Jerima King, 50, whose daughter, Army First Lieutenant Anna King-McCrillis, 26, suffered a brain injury in Iraq. "But a soldier can fall through the cracks if there is not somebody there whose only purpose is to make sure that they’re safe."

Certainly, Cynthia went to extraordinary lengths to make sure her son Rory was safe. While he was awaiting surgery at Walter Reed, he was temporarily admitted to Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, for special brain rehabilitation. There, Cynthia says, he was confined, without a call button, to an enclosed bed (she calls it a “caged bed”). One time, Cynthia says, after Rory wet the sheets, a nurse called him a “dirty boy” and made him sit naked while she changed the bedding. As the month wore on, Rory grew increasingly demoralized. “I raised my hand to protect the U.S. Constitution,” he says. “They locked me in a cage.” After seeing her son in such distress, Cynthia would sign herself out, then sneak back to Rory’s room to make sure he wasn’t being mistreated. VA officials insist Rory received proper care while at McGuire. They say he was restrained for his own safety and provided with a call button, and nurses monitored him regularly. “To our knowledge,” the agency said in a memo, Rory was never treated “in a condescending manner.”

But military families and their advocates say Cynthia’s dissatisfaction with her son’s treatment is all too common. “For too many, the initials VA stand for ‘Veterans’ Adversary,’” says Representative Bob Filner (D-CA), who chairs the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Patients can wait weeks or even months for appointments. Case managers often seem overloaded. Mental health treatment is inconsistent: in 2006 a VA deputy undersecretary, Frances Murphy, called it “virtually inaccessible.” And in many cases those who request specialized therapies at civilian hospitals are denied. For many parents, dealing with the VA becomes the most frustrating part of their child’s recovery. “You have to fight every single day to get your soldier what he needs,” says Valerie Wallace, 46, who lives in Odessa, Florida. Her son, Sergeant John Barnes, 24, suffered a brain injury in Iraq.

Michael Kussman, the VA’s undersecretary for health, says the department is striving to improve its care—cutting the waiting time for appointments to 30 days, hiring “transition advocates” to help patients through the system, and adding almost 4,000 additional mental health specialists. VA hospitals are equipped to handle the needs of most returning service members, Kussman says, but the agency will occasionally outsource care to civilian hospitals if it’s “the best thing for the patient.”

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