Sunday, December 21, 2008

Death and the VA

I was in Las Vegas when I received word by way of an email that my dad was dead. Actually, it was two emails. The first one was from my oldest daughter, the one married to Barry, a US Army Blackhawk pilot currently stationed in Iraq. She simply wrote, “Daddy, call grandma right away!” I knew then that my father was either gone or very close to it. Before calling my mom I opened the other email from my brother: “Dad breathed his last this morning at …”

Even now, many weeks later, I still feel nothing. One of my buddies is a psychiatrist and I mentioned to him that I have no sadness. In fact, that I feel nothing at all—neutral. His style of analysis is partially to use his own life experiences in helping his patient’s to cope and understand. When his dad died he also felt little, or so he says. In other words, if it happened to him that way, well then, it must be normal, whatever “normal” means. And just between friends, I think both he and I are both “football bats”—we be screwed up, ebonically speaking.

I started writing this not long after I returned from across the Pacific, but I stopped after finishing just the two paragraphs above. Other than the arthritis in my fingers and the tendonitis in my wrists, the real reason is something else—the current bane (and purpose) of my life.

I feel like two people: the person I show to others, the guy who seems to have it fairly together—that’s the fellow that speaks pleasantries and nods hello when he’s forced to leave the sanctuary of home to meet with and help local fellow veterans down at the office. But truthfully, that doesn’t feel like the real me; that’s a fake, an imposter. The real “hidden me” lurks in a dark place, lost in a sea of stormy nothingness. Actually it is a sea of something, and that roiling sea consists of anger, no, gusts of outright visceral rage, and all of it mostly directed at the local VA.

My voluntary (unpaid) involvement with service officering, which entails my assisting fellow veterans and dependents in trying to deal with a very difficult to deal with Veterans Administration, is in fact killing me, exactly in the way that cigarettes leisurely kill smokers, or the way high blood pressure silently kills the sufferers of that deadly condition. In fact, just writing that word, “VA,” causes my blood to boil, my teeth to grind, and my thoughts to seethe.

I’ve noticed too that my failed marriage, the resultant separation from my girls, and the death of my father and others, that all of it seems to make the continuous problems I encounter with the VA, and the schmucks in there intent on screwing over my people, all the more worse.

I was trying to explain the depth and cause of my VA-induced fury to someone the other day. You see, it occurs to me that, unlike most, I never get to get to achieve closure. The irony is that most of the people I’ve assisted to an endpoint rarely continue to harbor any ill will towards the very institution that gave them so much trouble over the months, and even years, of their quest for the benefits due them. Not so with me, since there’s always a fresh line of vets in the midst of getting their dose of “VA hard time” before hopefully eventually getting their claims awarded to them, albeit at times many years after filing the initial claim.

My predecessor, and the guy who originally asked me to help him do this stuff, used to growl at me as he listened to me complain loudly and continuously against the barrage of boneheaded decisions coming out of Manila, “Spear, calm down. You can only do what you can do. When you leave the office, don’t take it home with you.” If only I was put together that way, but I’m not. Most nights I hardly sleep at all, as my mind squirms with the latest bit of obtuse VA meanness.

So, my father died, and instead of pondering his passing, all I can think of is my vitriol for this merciless government bureaucracy. Is that healthy? One of the other ironies of this very real detestation is that my own personal dealings with the VA have been fairly good. I was eventually awarded compensation for all the conditions I claimed (after about 18 months of challenging and fighting) and I now receive all the meds I need to keep my body in one piece, although, I seem to be losing the battle to keep my mind together (perhaps because of my volunteer work with vets—my cross to bear, as my mom calls such things). So, I’m not angry for me, I’m mad because of what I see being done to others. I want it to stop, but I’m mostly powerless against this non-empathetic heartless machine. After all, nothing breeds despair more than helplessness

On the other hand, perhaps it’s good. While my heart and mind are filled with spite and hostility, and yes Mr. S, with disdain, maybe it’s keeping me from falling into a pit of isolated gloomy sadness, where I think I might otherwise be, for I’m pretty certain that once I stop doing this stuff that I will rarely find cause to leave the confines of my compound. Even now, I hate leaving it and can’t wait to pass back through the gate.

PS: Whenever I post about the VA, as soon as I do so I feel uneasy about it, as if I should keep these unhappy thoughts just between me and the veterans to whom I normally vent my spleen. Notice though that I don’t include specifics on active cases. I’m not supposed to do that while still doing my service officering. Anyway, my counterpart is the one who speaks nicey-nicey. I don’t like what they are doing down there and I obviously don’t care if they know it. As for my counterpart, he’s not any happier with the way many of the things are done at VARO Manila, but he keeps his really foul thoughts between the two of us. Poor guy—he still believes he can make them change their ways. I just don’t see it ever happening. Institutionalized unresponsiveness, I believe purposeful, predicated on advancing careers based on building reputations purely on budgetary mindfulness. I don’t know how else to explain it—it’s all about the money. If I was in charge of it all, if the shoe was on the other foot, I certainly wouldn’t allow the things I see from my perspective. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.

More thoughts and observations on the death of my dad in the works… I’ll try to stay away from venting on the VA for a while, or try to. I mean, what good does it do?


Anonymous said...

My dear Phil,

Be where you are and don't add to the burden by feeling as though you should be somewhere else in thought or grieving or life. You are a passionate man and will weather this. I have no doubt.
All my love.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Yeah, I'm a regular Mother Teresa, on my way to achieving my own brand of martyred sainthood. Nah, my problem is that I take as a personal affront every slight and snub perpetrated against my vets and their surviving dependents. I KNOW the pain, I internalize it and make it my own, while folks at the VA give the impression that its none of their business. Hell, they say, they have a budget to meet. Talk to any of the white people in charge down there and that's the underlying theme. That, and we are all a bunch of lying cheating frauds. That perception is common to everyone in that embassy, in the counselor side,in Social Security, and of course, in the VA. It wears on me after all, trying to deal with adverse uncaring attitudes like that. I'm at the point that whenever I come in sight of my own embassy it makes my skin crawl. Its like, they don't like us, and I therefore, don't like them.

Anonymous said... can do one of two things: Stay or go. How you spend your time is yours to decide. You are conflicted because you give a shit. Now that is something I don't think you CAN change. It's how you are wired, friend.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Sure I care... its a curse. Regardless, my days as an advocate are numbered. One way or another, this time next year I'm back into retirement... You're such a comfort Hope.. thanks.

KA said...

I guess I"m just glad to have you back on the blogosphere. For what it's worth, I got divorced, and I felt very little about it.

PhilippinesPhil said...

You guess, huh? Ok, but you don't sound very sure about it. Thanks, ...I guess... grin

Divorced. We all saw that coming. Glad you weathered it. No kids make it easier to get through, less guilt involved.

Unknown said...

Phil I know you probably don't get enough or probably very little if any positive reinforcement. I for one am very appreciative of your assistance. I probably don't express myself as well as i should but THANKS from the very essence of my being! Hang in there buddy and enjoy Christmas with the girls!!! You deserve it!!!

Nick Ballesteros said...

Just dropping by to say Merry Christmas to you and your family! - Nick, Tina, and Jo-Lo

PhilippinesPhil said...

Dave, this is David M, right? Thanks buddy. Actually, I picked up the last of this year's courtesy copy VA letters on Tuesday from the embassy and after going through them, I have to say I was mostly happy with the decisions. Perhaps I have a skewed perspective because of a few really bad decisions? I don't know. Thing is, if even one widow is screwed over, or one vet, that ONE is enough to drive me into paroxysms. I need a new line of "work," eh? I'm not really fit for this emotionally I think.

Hey Dr Watson. Sorry I stopped dropping in. I think one of your commenters got a little too much and I just stopped coming. I'll stop in and say hi back. Thanks, and same wishes to ya'll.

Anonymous said...

I'm a military brat as well and my father passed away recently. I too felt that numb while he passed. All I can do is feel for my mom who had to go through it all. The VA here in the philippines didnt do anything at all, when my father suffered a stroke and was taken to the ICU for about a month, we had to shoulder everything. When he did get out, all of his meds amounting to double digits pesos signs just for a DAY drove us to the brink of bankruptcy. Now that he has passed after 3 years of fighting, we lost everything only now that the VA sends his meds 6 months after he died. Now my mother only gets 5 percent of what she used to get with her survival benefits and can't even get VA pension. My father served in vietnam, got cancer from agent orange but despite that loyally served his country for 30 years in USAF. They said in the US they would have taken care of it, but no way to take him there. He wouldnt even survive up to manila. I guess life is full of disappointments we have to live with

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hi. If your mom was legally married to your father, and all the documents are in order to prove it, and they were married for a year or longer, then depending on her income she should be either receiving Dependent Indemnity Compensation (DIC) or Widow's pension based on your dad's wartime service. The DIC is more; its awarded if the veteran dies of a service connected condition. I suggest you have her make an appointment at the VFW DSO office in Angeles City, the number is 892-2407, the email is Good luck to her and sorry to hear of your troubles.