For most of the country, the events leading up to the current VA scandal must seem like recent anomalies. Those of us who have experienced the bureaucracy of military healthcare firsthand, however, have seen this coming for years. 

Frankly, I’m amazed that it has taken this long for the VA’s problems to reach the point of “scandal.” For years we’ve been told about the increasing number of veteran suicides, while those of us still serving have attended countless suicide awareness briefings. Nonetheless, too many returning from overseas deployments still have a hard time re-acclimating and getting the necessary preventative care, resulting in a dramatic and unnecessary increase in the number of veterans who choose to take their own lives (nearly 22 commit suicide every single day). 

Your average citizen might be surprised to know that when you return from a war zone, you don’t just automatically get health care. Believe it or not, you have to apply for it. I’m still waiting on approval to access my base’s health services. I deployed in 2012. 

- Justin Velez-Hagan

Unfortunately, this tragedy wasn’t enough for the country to demand action from Washington. Dozens of my fellow vets had to die waiting in line for medical care at the Phoenix VA hospital to capture the nation’s attention. 

If we have known about the problems for so long, some wonder why more veterans and current servicemen haven’t voiced their opinions. Well, it’s in our DNA to not complain. Those who enter the military are generally conservative by nature. When we sign the dotted line volunteering to risk our lives and sacrifice our own freedoms, we realize that there is going to be little reward ... and we don’t go around asking for gratitude either. Our best reward is knowing that we did our duty for the love of our country. 

The culture of the military isn’t one to promote a bunch of whining either. While an active member of the armed services, complaining doesn’t make you popular and can even be rewarded with severe consequences. In at least one case, a Marine was dismissed for criticizing the President, our Commander-in-Chief, on social media. If we’re not careful, a complaint can be seen as a critical statement against our commanders, which can result in punishment under the UCMJ. 

Many of my fellow veterans have spent years in war zones, going wherever duty calls, without a single word of protest. So, when they finally do get to come home, even major healthcare setbacks are relatively benign hiccups in the scheme of things. We don’t complain because we’re used to sacrificing. “A little more time and a little more pain won’t kill me” is the attitude that makes us successful overseas, but creates a problem when it’s time to heal.   

When you come from an organization whose culture thrives on suppressing criticisms, emotions, and pain, it becomes very difficult to convince yourself that you really need psychological or physical care. And if you finally do decide that it’s time to get help, it’s very easy to be discouraged, which sometimes leads to completely giving up.

I’ve seen this happen time and time again among my fellow troops. During my time in Kandahar, I can’t count the number of Marines and soldiers who sustained combat injuries and just wanted to “throw a little dirt on it” and get back out there. Seeing one of your fellow troops hooked up to life support has the incredible effect of making your own injury, which might be serious back home, seem more like a mild headache when deployed.

Putting off caring for my own injuries until I returned home, unfortunately, made it harder to get medical care. Your average citizen might be surprised to know that when you return from a war zone, you don’t just automatically get health care. Believe it or not, you have to apply for it. I’m still waiting on approval to access my base’s health services. I deployed in 2012. 

The VA is a whole different animal and, to be honest, I still don’t understand it. The onus is on the service member to maintain and present his records of injury to the VA for benefits. Didn’t get a printed record signed by the doctor you visited while deployed? Good luck proving you were injured on Uncle Sam’s watch. 

Although veterans of campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq are supposed to automatically qualify for VA hospital benefits following their deployments, we still have to fill out paperwork to apply. I’ve been denied twice in my own ongoing battle with the VA’s bureaucracy, who has incorrectly cited missing or incorrect information. And I used to think the DMV was frustrating. 

After realizing that the VA might take a while, I was lucky enough to have the option to seek care through the TRICARE plan (health insurance for military personnel) that I pay for. For the most part, the service and care has been excellent. Unfortunately, the TRICARE system is overwhelmed too. After my first six weeks of therapy, I was told I’d be added to a six month waiting list in order to continue. My consolation was a prescription of pain meds. No thanks, I think I’ll just suck it up. 

My own injuries require more physical therapy and possibly surgery, but until now my family are the only ones who ever heard me mention them. I did my duty and would’ve given up far more for the opportunity to do so. But, what I won’t stand for is the mistreatment of my three million fellow veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who deserve only the best our country has to offer, yet consistently have to settle for less. 

It might not be in their nature to grumble or complain, but let’s hope our collective outrage finally sparks the action from our elected representatives that our veterans deserve.  

Justin Vélez-Hagan is a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. He is also the founder of The National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce and economic policy researcher at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. 

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