As before, this story is substantively true in that only names, specific dates and locations may be changed in order to protect this particular service member’s well being as they are currently still dependent on VA services. Because it refers to fairly recent events, I feel a trigger warning is warranted. Thank you for reading:
Part III: My Broken Children
I just said goodnight to another broken child, the latest in a string that stretches back to 1975, a boy we’ll call D. This one is a bit special though. D was a “stray” my son, X, brought home their freshman year in high school. He stayed over, a lot. His family life was sketchy and often there wasn’t food, running water or safety where he was supposed to live, so he basically lived with us for 4 years. We’re not rich, not even middle class, but I can always stretch soup and the couch is comfortable.
D and X got tight. So tight they even broke the gender barrier in the high school color guard/drill team. Not because they wanted to wave flags at football games, but that’s where the girls were. I used to say it was “two boys, a babe and a bet”. X was college bound, D was not. With 8 kids in his house, he just wanted out. We all tried to talk him out of it, there’s a war on after all. But, he signed up for early entry into the Marines. Didn’t even walk in graduation he was gone so fast after finals. He was a Lance Corporal so fast my head spun. And then he was gone. And then, what was left of him came home.
D has what was once known as a “no broken bones, no blood” disability. In other words, unless you knew him before, you’d not immediately see he has problems. The physical stuff is pretty well healed, the mental stuff, not so much. The Marines kept him for a while, stuffed him with the “PTSD cocktail” of drugs, then out processed him with full medical discharge. We knew he was hurt and coming home, but we didn’t know exactly when. It took him 3 months after discharge to show up on my doorstep. He was broke, homeless and out of food. The Marines weren’t paying him anymore because he was now “the VA’s problem” and the VA was stonewalling him on his disability payments. He couldn’t cope with many things because crowds, loud noises, strange cars, speeding cars, strangers, and people he knew but doesn’t recognize due to memory loss caused by his injury. All this and more freak him out and he doesn’t trust anyone but me, my son and, well, that’s about it.
So we pitched in to help as best as we could. My son helped him get out more, going to movies, the “hangout” park, quiet bars and such. Me, I did paperwork, ream upon ream of the stuff. A few more months passed and D was going stir crazy. It’s the Midwestern/Puritan work ethic i.e. if you don’t work, you’re worthless. Hoping for the best, I directed him to the local WalMart*, they have that much vaunted and publicized promise to give every vet who applies a job. D applied for night stocker, so he’d not be around a bunch of people. He applied three times! Not a single call back yet, though we all know they are hiring. Another broken promise to add to the tally. He keeps applying at places, for minimum wage, but no one is calling him back. I think they see “disabled veteran” and think “likely to snap on the job”.
Another 6 months passed and we got his VA somewhat straightened out, after appealing it 3 times. So he has a little money coming in now, but is appealing again as the percentage of disability allowed by the VA is less than his DD214 states. It’s barely enough to make rent, car and phone bills, but he’s trying to make it on his own, so I have my couch back, at least part time. I call him to come over and eat at least twice a week. He doesn’t know it’s a check up.
As a former USAF nurse, I also kept an eye on what the VA doctors were doing. At one point I had to go with him to get a medication adjustment. They were giving him a drug for depression, that causes anxiety and giving him a drug for anxiety that causes depression! They also had him on sleeping pills that weren’t working, but can make you psychotic if you can’t sleep when you take them. Another drug was to make him wake up but zone out when he’s awake. I found him a good therapist that takes TriCare which are scarcer than hen’s teeth, but at least I know this one won’t tell him to “suck it up! Be a Marine!” and he has a good record with PTSD.
This past Fall was really bad because he would sit at his place with nothing to do but watch cable and stew about the VA and the wreckage of his life plans. X finally convinced him to sign up for a few classes at the local junior college to get him out of the house. They aren’t in the same classes, but X made sure they were on campus at the same time, just in case. They also have a scheduled study session night. I made sure he got an Individualized Education Program, IEP, so that accommodations can be made to help him succeed.
D. applied for a Service Dog and was accepted. He’s due to get it in a few more months. I hope it helps replace his lost K-9 and gives him comfort and safety.
D came over today to get help applying for Social Security Disability/Supplemental Income, SNAP aka Food Stamps, and help with his utilities. It took hours, but it’s something I can do to help him stay afloat long enough that he might be able to salvage some sort of life after war. The thing that really kicked my ass and got dust in my eyes was when, during the 2nd application, it asked if the applicant was disabled and, after clicking “yes”, he said, “I suppose I have to get used to being useless most of the time.” The despair bloomed in the room like a toxic fog. I know what he was thinking: “I’m only 22, how can this be all there is? Why me? I was good at what I did. I had PLANS! Life sucks. I’m useless…..etc.”
We finished the paperwork, at least for now. Seems they all need new copies of everything every time, but we saved that for this weekend. Dinner was done and he wanted to get home to do homework and watch a show on TV. As I walked him to the door, I spoke to him about not kicking himself over things he can’t control and how he was worth just as much as any young man. I also told him things would get better, things change, etc. I’m not sure I believe that anymore given my experiences over the last 30+ years of dealing with the human detritus of war. A mothers’ words of comfort I suppose, though of comfort to him or me? Both I guess. All parents want their children to have a better world/life than they had. At this point, I just want the kids to have a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving.# I also gave him a hug, something he’s not let me do since the first day he came home. It’s progress and all I can hope for right now.
If you know a vet who needs some help but aren’t sure what to do, here’s a few tips from someone who’s been at it a while.
Commit or Don’t: If you commit to a wounded vet, it’s like making a promise to a child. Don’t you dare break it unless you’re in hospital or dead. Even then, make arrangements for someone to step in. No more broken promises!
Create a Safe Space: In a family, kin or chosen, make sure there is space for them to be who they are now, not as you remember them. Keep an “open door, open mind” policy in your place. Love them unconditionally. This means no strings on your help or caring for them. Don’t always try and cheer them up or “happy chat” as I’ve heard it called. They can smell fake and uncomfortable miles off. Make quiet time to just “be” with them, it helps. Hugs are good too if they’re up to it. They don’t make it all right, but they are human contact and that does help.
Volunteer: VA and Vet Centers are notoriously underfunded and understaffed. Even a non vet can answer the phone for these folks. It will also get you an in on what’s what in the VA.
Paperwork: Help them fill out, file, copy, make copies of documents they need, make sure to list passwords, usernames, etc. in a hard copy as many vets have cognitive problems due to PTSD, TBI or other types of injuries. Also, help them schedule and keep appointments. A shared calendar app is good for this aspect.
Transportation: Make sure they can get to and from where they need to go. Mass transit is often not an option for these vets. Even driving a car can be problematic and directions/GPS useless, depending on the vets’ injury.
Medical Issues: Sometimes it’s good to have a buddy system so that the vet has someone they trust there who can then reexplain things the vet might have missed. Also, check the meds! There are a bunch of doctors out there who think “one mix fits all”. It doesn’t. A huge warning flag is when they are prescribing meds to counteract the side effects of another med a person is on.
Therapy: Study after study shows that meds alone won’t do it. Even if all they do is join a vets group therapy session, it’s better to have someone else to talk to about this stuff with.
Addiction: Familiarize yourself with the signs and care enough to talk to the vet about self medicating with booze, pills, sex, shopping, whatever. It’s a band aid and it only sticks long enough to wreck your life. Find AA, Al-Anon, Nar-Anon etc. in your area and have the number handy when they’re ready to deal with it.
A place to cry: One day, some day, it always happens. Don’t judge or try to solve things, just let them cry.
I’m sure I’ve missed some things. Please let me know if you spot one I missed.
*As far as I’m concerned, WalMart is evil, but they did promise to hire vets, so it was worth a shot. Now, I think it’s worth a class action lawsuit. Anyone know an attorney?
#There is a Hell in Montana which freezes over every year though it also thaws so it’s a 50/50 proposition with the snowball. Better than the alternative 100% melt rate though.