Testifying before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs today, OIF veteran Jonathan Pruden offered the most logically simple idea I have yet heard that would have the greatest positive impact on improving the care of returning veterans--soldier advocates.
In the hearing on "DOD/VA Collaboration and Cooperation to Meet the Health Care Needs of Returning Servicemembers," Pruden used examples of soldiers he has known to show how different obstacles--all of which could be overcome with the assistance of an advocate--led to the unnecessary suffering.
The military provides legal representation to soldiers when they have reason to enter the penal system, and it makes perfect sense that an injured soldier could use a different kind of representation to help negotiate the complicated bureaucracy of the healthcare system. When a veteran's future mobility, sight, hearing, or sanity is at risk, the stakes are no less high than if he/she is facing a term in the brig.
Advocates would know all the proper procedures, how to file paperwork, how to follow-up, who to call if there is a problem, etc., so it would save each individual soldier the overwhelming trouble of detangling the VA system. Further, it would save VA manpower time because they would not have to field the queries of thousands of confused soldiers and military family members.
A selection of Pruden's statement before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs is below.
In Need of an Advocate
I’ve found that soldiers will often “suck it up” and not complain about challenges they face or seek the help they need. At times they are stymied by on overly complex system that can be challenging to negotiate even without mental and physical obstacles created by their wounds or medications. The following cases are a few examples of issues faced by men I’ve worked with.
• I caught one of my men dragging his nerve damaged foot and asked him why he wasn’t wearing a much needed Ankle-foot orthosis (AFO). He told me that the Sergeant at the orthopedics clinic didn’t have one in his size.
• One if my old Scout’s was seriously wounded and his entire squad was Killed in Action (KIA) or Wounded In Action (WIA). He denied having any PTSD and believed those who claimed to have it were faking. Meanwhile he was consuming ever greater quantities of alcohol and was having trouble controlling his anger.
• Another soldier; a bilateral amputee, was rendered unconscious for an undetermined amount of time by a blast that killed the driver of his vehicle and grievously wounded the other occupant. His mother reported he has great difficulty remembering things but he was not screened for a TBI in nearly two years by DOD. This is likely because his TBI symptoms were masked by symptoms of significant PTSD and substance abuse.
There was no reason for these men to suffer. In each of cases resources were available and could have been used to help these men. Often problems arise, not because of a lack of resources, but a lack of information. These soldiers all needed more information and an advocate to ensure they received the services they needed.