Monday, May 26, 2008

Channeling Scottish

Sometimes I like to describe moments and events from my past, especially the strangely memorable ones. The other day while exchanging emails with Hope, while talking about our family history, a very weird evening from the early 80s popped into my memory.

Back then, I used to be quite the dancer, or perhaps I just fancied myself one. Regardless, hardly a weekend went by that I didn’t spend a Friday or Saturday night, or both, at the Yokota Air Base NCO club. I’d drink a lot of beer and then proceed to sweat most of it right back out by dancing nonstop. It used to freak out a lot of folks that a white guy could dance “like that,” especially the black guys.

One night, I got semi-involved in a fight, not as a brawler, but as a peacemaking interventionist. I guess I was in my U.N. mode. Afterwards, when all the action had died down, I was asked to come back to club manager’s office to write out my affidavit of what happened. I was pumped up from the action of the fight, which, combined with a few beers, had me feeling quite intense.

Then, a moment came where I no longer felt like myself, as if a part of my consciousness had transitioned outside my body. I was looking through my eyes, but it wasn’t just me in there running the show anymore. It was like I was sharing my being with another entity. I blew it off as the beer. But then, something truly strange took place.

I began speaking with a perfectly effortless Scottish brogue. When the new accent kicked in, the people who knew me and knew my normal voice looked at me quizzically, like what the heck is that?

Without a thought as to why, for the next 10 or 15 minutes I began recounting the events that led up to the fisticuffs to the SSgt security policeman. I didn't know him, had never met him before, and he never guessed that I was speaking "in tongues" so to speak. Listening to myself however, I was totally amazed at the strange sounding words pouring from my mouth.

A girl from work, a female airman who was a buddy of mine and had known me for years, was also there in the office with me. Along with two or three other friends, She had also been involved in the fight, and once I finished speaking to the cop she asked me, “I didn’t know you were Scottish.”

I laughed, “I didn’t either. I have no idea why I’m talking this way. I didn’t even know I could.” I chuckled again; I even laughed Scottish! I heard myself doing it, was greatly self-amused by it, which caused me to laugh even more.

This is really cool!’ I thought delightedly.

With an approving nod she encouraged me, “Well, don’t stop. It sounds great. Are you sure you’re not a Scot? It sounds very authentic.”

“Aye. As far as I know my family comes from Ireland.”

Aye? Did I just say aye?

“Well, I know what an Irish accent sounds like and that ain’t it. It’s as Scottish as it can get.”

For the next hour or so my strange new accent along with the feeling that it wasn’t me speaking it continued. I enjoyed it immensely. It was fun trying it out on people that knew me and to watch their reactions.

Alas, after a while it wore off and I was back to my blandly normal Midwestern enunciation. Try as I might I could not bring the brogue back and never could. I even found a book on how to phonetically speak English in a Scottish accent and still couldn’t recreate it.

Many years later I learned that my ancestors on my dad’s side did indeed come from Scotland, from Paisley to be exact. So what happened to me that evening? Did some long lost ancestor in spirit form jump into my brain? Or maybe I had just watched one too many Star Trek episodes. You know, the ones with “Scotty,” the classic Scottish engineer with his fake, yet wonderfully lilting and rolling Scottish accent, telling Captain Kirk that he didn’t know how much longer the engines would last at warp drive, or if the shields could take even one more hit from a Klingon photon torpedo.

Then again, maybe we retain flashes of memory and traits from our ancestors; I’d like to think that’s what happened to me that night—the evening when I had mysteriously “turned Scottish.”

Friday, May 23, 2008

I Met a Marine...

I met a “marine’s marine” last week. Guys like him are what keep me in the business of advising and assisting veterans. Hell, guys like him are why I joined the service, the Marines to be exact, in the first place. He brought his original claims form to me and all it had listed on it was a single scar on his right arm, as well as a knock to his noggin in bootcamp.

“I don’t know why that one is on there,” he said, “I told ‘em that was just something that happened in bootcamp and nothing really came of it.”

I checked out his
DD214.

“You have three
purple hearts!” I exclaimed. “Geez. I suspect we're going to have to update your claim my friend. ...All right Sir, lets talk about those purple hearts; if its all right with you that is. Would you mind much, talking about it so I can get an idea of how badly you were wounded?”

“Sure, no problem,” he answered offhandedly.

When he’d walked in I noticed he used a cane. He moved gingerly with a stoop that I immediately recognized as one stemming from a bad lower back. From his discharge certificate I saw that he was the same age as my mom, only my mom’s “giddy up” is much smoother and more agile than this old marine’s. On my note pad I scratched “bad back?” and “cane.”

“How’d you hurt that back?”

“Vietnam. A booby trap,” is all he said casually with just the trace of a grin, which quickly faded.

“Okay, I’ll be asking about that. Let’s see, you were a marine. What years did you serve?”

“I did my 20, First, I was in from ’52 to ’66, and then when the Corps wouldn’t send me back to Vietnam I got out for three months. I figured if I reenlisted that way that they’d send me back; and it worked; they sent me right back to Vietnam as soon as I re-upped.”

I laughed declaring loudly, “Typical marine! Why be in the Corps if you can’t be right smack dab in the middle of the shit! Hot damn, the country is full of weak-willed pansy asses these days, worried about the price of gas and how much money they can make, but those that ain’t, join the Corps. Even today! God bless all
leathernecks!”

“THREE purple hearts!” I exclaimed. “You are either the luckiest guy in the world, or the most UN-fortunate. You lived through it, so I guess that makes you pretty darned lucky. So where did you get your first nick.”

“Korea. I got two there; both times by
Chi-com grenades.” Pointing to a deep transverse scar across his nose, and to some ancient pits half hidden by wrinkles across his brow and left cheek, he stated nonchalantly, “That’s where I got all this. Oh, and I also got a nasty piece of shrapnel that tore through my left bicep.”

“May I see that please?” I asked him.

“Sure.”

He pulled up his sleeve and I had a chance to examine his “scar.” The tiny piece of hot Chinese shrapnel had ripped into the front of his bicep and tore out through his triceps. The scar is white with age and there’s a lot of tissue obviously missing, causing his arm to be misshapen, especially toward the back. After further questioning, I learned that his strength is much reduced in that arm. Additionally, he sustained significant nerve damage manifested by spasming muscles in his left hand and lower arm; not a surprise considering how much tissue was traumatically affected.

I continued my interrogation.

“You didn’t join up until ’52, so you missed the “
bug out” and “the frozen Chosin” eh?” I chuckled, “And about 15 years later you lucked out and caught another war—the perfect career for a marine, you started it out with a war and finished it up with one.”

Being blown up twice while on patrols by Chinese Communist grenades in Korea notwithstanding, turns out Vietnam was the war that nearly did him in, and on more than one occasion.

Once, on the side of a jungle covered ridge, he and his men found themselves on the wrong end of a concerted effort by a couple of U.S. Air Force
F4 Phantoms intent on destroying what their pilots thought was the enemy. Luckily, once again, all those two jets managed to do was re-landscape a whole lot of real-estate while making a squad of marines a whole lot more distrustful of their sister service’s brand of close air support.

He wasn’t quite so lucky in the spring of 1967 when a booby-trap exploded in his face, and for the third time in his life while on patrol he was knocked unconscious. He remembers warily approaching the screen of green foliage and just barely sticking his nose into the trees and brush when it erupted. The massive blast threw him bodily up and back, not that he remembers much after the initial eruption. In that incident, bamboo shrapnel pierced his right bicep about 1 inch deep at an upward angle involving at least one, possibly two muscle groups. That wound is only slightly sensitive and tender now and does not much affect the use of that (right) arm.

What bothers him these days more than anything though is his back. He said when he came to after the blast he felt as if he’d been hit by a
Mack Truck.

“I must have landed on a rock because my back was never the same after that,” he opines.

His is a story typical of a lot of military men, especially those that “humped” long distances while “rucking” incredibly heavy loads on their backs. Complicated by the trauma to his back he managed to endure on with his infantry career all the way to his “20,” but now, going on four decades later, his damaged back has degenerated to the point that he walks hunched over as if still carrying a 100-pound load. Mind you, he doesn’t whine or complain, but the results of his suffering are obvious for all to see.

Now, a man who has “
seen the elephant” as much as this guy has; a fellow who has literally been blown up three times to within an inch of life, you might think he’d be affected mentally. I asked him about that.

“Well, it’s not bad. I have
flashbacks every so often is all.”

His wife sat to his side and a little behind him. I was glad she was there, because I watched her face while delicately asking him a series of questions concerning his mental state.

I asked such things as: Do you have nightmares? Are you irritable at times? Do you blow up at people or over situations for no real reason? Do you have problems sleeping? Do you feel sad or angry, but don’t know why? Do you feel tense at times or extra wary as if you might be under attack, even though you know otherwise?

He downplayed or denied each time, yet his wife’s subtle reactions told me that she didn’t exactly agree with many or any of his denials.

“Would you mind if I had you talk to a mental health specialist Sir? I just want to find out if there is something to those flashbacks that you have.”

He agreed as if it might be interesting for him to do such a strange thing.

From my experience, the VA in these parts won’t even consider seeing a veteran who “might” be suffering from some mental condition, unless he shows up with a piece of paper written by a professional declaring the presence of PTSD; and even then, ONLY if that PTSD stems from a documented service incident called a stressor. With his three purple hearts, I know it won’t take much to get some kind of rating if indeed the marine is suffering from some level of post traumatic stress, which I’m SURE he is.

Anyway, I always expect the worst and hope for the best. Unfortunately, usually my negative expectations are met. Some might say it could be a matter of self-fulfilling prophecies, but I think it’s more a question of bitter experience being a harsh teacher. I mean, you'd think that three purple hearts would give a veteran some extra-special consideration, wouldn't you? Guess again.

So, we’ll see…

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Back in the Saddle

I must be crazy. Why else would I purposely subject myself to having to get up in the morning again, to take a shower by the ungodly hour of 8 a.m., so I can get my creaky aching bones to the office by 9? Oh yeah; I’m most definitely certifiable.

Or maybe I’m just an idiot. Why else would I start in again with helping veterans try to deal with the seeming indifference of the local VA office and its officious band of raters, examiners, adjudicators, reviewers, and managers? Epiphany! I’m crazy AND an idiot!

You know what’s amazing? The copious verbiage that seems to spout from the embassy’s third VA floor as if from a busted fire hydrant. The scary thing is that I am able to understand much of what they spurt.

“My veterans,” many almost mad with anxiety, with these infuriating letters in hand, some crumpled up earlier in a fit of rage before being smoothed back into a semi-readable form, line up, hoping that I’ll be the one to bring some sense to the maddening words and turn their panic to some semblance of peace of mind.

When it’s their turn they’ll sit next to me at our little round conference table, usually with a deep sighing groan, hand over their well-worn letters, and gaze anxiously at me with a hint of desperation as I push my reading glasses up my nose and start to read. Usually, before I can finish even a single sentence, they’ll start to squawk and carry on. I give them a “I know, I know. They’re evil, but let me read this so I can figure out what to do next, okay?”

Much of what I do is interpret. Sometimes my guys will look at me expectantly like I’m some kind of archeologist reading ancient cuneiform tablets or Egyptian hieroglyphics, just waiting for me to jump up and scream “Yes! It’s all making sense!” I have to admit that it makes me feel somewhat superior that I am able to decipher what they, simple vets straight “off the street,” without my years of training and experience, are clueless to understand, at least as far as knowing “what to do next.”

It’s not that the stuff is written in something other than English; no, it’s nothing like that. The irony is that basically the VA, in trying to fulfill a mandate to keep claimants “informed,” tends to drown them in too much information.

So here’s some of what’s happening. The VA is SUPPOSED to inform each veteran on EXACTLY what they’ll need to fulfill the requirements of “reasonable doubt” proof that would cause VA adjudicators to approve their claim. Instead, they simply tell veterans to provide nebulous “medical evidence” that “shows the condition was treated from the end of their military service to the present.”

My answer to that: Hey VA, THAT is a crock! Most folks that suffer from service related conditions simply do what they mostly did while they were on active duty—they suck it up and keep on trucking, and most often, out of necessity, they self-medicate. Now, if you leave it to the VA, that’s as far as most claims would go—straight into the VA denial waste bin, because almost no one would be able to provide that sort of continuum of medical treatment evidence. It’s unreasonable to expect otherwise.

What they don’t mention is that a medical opinion by the veteran’s physician simply stating that, “based on assessment of service medical records, the veteran’s present condition “more likely than not” began in service” is all that SHOULD be needed to provide connection proof to service. Sounds simple enough right? Yet, do you think that simple instructive statement ever finds its way into a “duty to assist and inform” template paragraph in any VA letter to a veteran claimant? That’s a rhetorical question by the way.

The mistake a lot of veterans make, at least from what I’ve seen at the “local version” of the VA, is to provide to the VA feasible “starter evidence” that results in the claimant being sent to VA physician examiners. These “impartial” (Yeah RIGHT!) VA doctors are then instructed to “examine by worksheet” the claimant, after which the rating side of the VA house asks these same doctors to provide a medical opinion as to whether or not the veteran’s condition is related to service.

Here’s a typical “open-minded” VA medical proclamation resulting from one of these inquiries: “It is less likely than it is that the veteran’s condition is service connected.”

Let me interpret that for you: “The chances that the veteran’s condition is connected to service is just less than 50-50.”

Keep this in mind; if they’d nudged it up ever so slightly to a shade just better than 50-50, then the VA would HAVE to grant service connection. So, to counter this VA mealy-mouthed tendency to “err on the side of denial” I’ve found it best to advise “my people” to go to their OWN private physician for a “better than 50-50” opinion, one that is EVER so close to the VA’s almost inevitable “less than 50-50” one. By getting this precious piece of paper from their own doctor it makes the VA's anti-opinion moot since the two disagreeing opinions cause "equipoise," and the beauty of the system is that "the tie goes to the runner," to use baseball terminology.

Is this stuff making your head spin? Hell, by now, most anyone trying to read this stuff has probably already given up; and I wouldn’t blame them one bit. Am I sounding cynical? Hey, call me a cynic.

However, I AM hopeful that change is in the wind. Today was my third day back in the saddle, but during the weekend I read over about 50 or so VA letters to “my veterans.” Mind you, the VA sends us copies of all correspondence sent to claimants, so long as they signed up with us to represent them.

So what has me hopeful is that many of the decisions actually seemed fair. Also, even more encouraging, is that several recent decisions seemed to result from some “intelligent oversight,” because the decisions made by these “beings” were actually overturned old denial decisions. When I saw these award letters I could not believe my eyes, since in my previous tour of duty, which comprised almost 4 years, I don’t remember even one such reversal in favor of a veteran.

So, something is definitely happening over there. I just hope it continues, because it bodes well for my people. Geez, I sound like freaking Moses!

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