23 December, 2005

Travelogue II: The VA Hospital, pt. 1

Okay, time to suck it up and write about the tough stuff [for background, start here]...

This all started when somebody at the Military Order of the Purple Heart heard about Project Valour-IT during our Veterans Day fundraising competition and contacted Patti Bader of Soldiers' Angels about it. Patient privacy laws have made Valour-IT's biggest challenge reaching those who need the laptops; we've had to rely largely on word-of-mouth. But, MOPH offered to use their extensive Veterans Affairs contacts to help us identify OIF and OEF veterans in VA hospitals who could benefit from the program. This was the first delivery of laptops, so they invited representatives from Soldiers' Angels and Valour-IT to meet with the VA brass and be there to hand out the first laptops. Patti asked me to go, and when I told her I couldn't even begin to afford a plane ticket, she bought the ticket herself (thank you, Patti!!!).

Before we left for the hospital, we were introduced to the Under Secretary for Health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Jonathan Perlin. He's a medical doctor who was in active practice until only a few years ago, and is a very soft-spoken man with a gentle handshake. After he took the position of Under Secretary, he had tried to keep visiting a VA clinic once a week to take patients, but soon found that the demands of his primary job made that impossible. His directly previous job had been as head of the hospital we were to visit.

When we entered Dr. Perlin's office, I hung back because I didn't know what was going to happen. The MOPH guys stepped right up and began talking to him. Dr. Perlin inquired about how Valour-IT got started, and when the MOPH PR guy couldn't answer, he motioned for me to join them. I gave the Secretary a brief synopsis. For the rest of the few minutes we were there (as we posed for pictures), the Secretary kept turning back to me and saying things like, "This is such a wonderful program!" with a sense of wonderment in his quiet little voice. When he thanked me, I said, "Thank you! Identifying those in need had been our biggest challenge, so the official support of the VA is going to help us reach more of those who need assistance."

I've previously mentioned the people involved in the events at the VA and the hospital: two men from MOPH (the PR guy had to leave before we went to the hospital), two other Soldiers' Angels besides me, and the VA Director of the Voluntary Service Office (Laura Balun, a wonderful lady who is very passionate about her job and helping wounded veterans). They were all very interesting and fun people, so we had a great time on the long ride to the hospital (we rode in an official government SUV, whoo-hooo!).

Though laughter abounded, we also had some time for serious conversation. I had a great talk with the MOPH Marine who was in charge of volunteer activities. He himself was hospitalized "only" three weeks when he was wounded in Vietnam and then returned to duty, but he was passionate about supporting severely wounded veterans. He was particularly concerned about helping them make the transition to civilian life, and supporting them through the injury-related psychological issues that can develop months or years after physical healing is complete. This was why he was so enthusiastic about Valour-IT. Talking with him was very exciting because he expressed the same ideas and even used the same phrases I have on the topic of the impact Valour-IT has on laptop recipients. It was great to hear a person who would know about such things confirm all that we intially believed about the benefits of Valour-IT.

The Marine sat in front of me in the SUV, so he laid his right arm along the back of the seat when he turned sideways to talk to me. I kept noticing the well-worn metal bracelet on his wrist. It was engraved with the name of a Corporal (C. A.) and a specific date from 1967. I assumed it was a memorial to C.A., and several times I considered asking why C.A. was so special to him, but I finally came to the conclusion that wouldn't be a good idea. However, I kept looking at it and thinking about it.

I mentally constrasted the young Marine who had likely served with C.A. in 1967 and the things he must have been through, with the 60-year-old man who sat in front of me as we spoke so honestly about things like death and severe injuries and the psychological burdens of our veterans and their courage in facing the challenges. I thought about the brotherhood, how people deal with adversity, and recognized the depth of the quiet passion that drove him in his current work. He didn't wear his heart on his sleeve, but it was very obvious that his position and contacts hadn't gone to his head; he did what he did for his brothers (young and old), and not for what it gave him.

He told us stories about the black humor of the patients at Walter Reed whom he greatly admired and had joined for one Friday Night Dinner at Fran O'brien's. One young man had grabbed the steak knife next to his plate and deadpanned, "Look at all the sharp untensils they've given us. Don't they know that every person at this table has PTSD?!" Every veteran at the table had burst out laughing.

Out of the blue, one of the Soldiers' Angels asked him how the Vietnam veterans felt about all the support this generation was receiving, if there was any jealousy. He responded as I expected, breaking into a large, genuine smile. He replied that for most of them it had soothed their hearts to see the parades and the welcome home that the Gulf War vets received. He added that they had been relieved to see that another generation would not suffer the same treatment the older warriors had, and that the welcome spilled over somewhat onto the Vietnam vets, which was very healing for many of them. As to how this generation of warriors has been received, he was thrilled, of course.

Ah, I see I'm still avoiding the hospital stuff. I'll post that next. I promise.

Part 2

Linked at Mudville Gazette