Jeremy Staat and Wesley Barrientos, veterans of the Iraq War, have been consumed by that feeling for months now. They’re proud of their military service and proud of their fellow veterans — but they’re also alarmed by the jump in suicides among U.S. veterans and service members during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re so concerned, in fact, that they plan to embark Sunday on a cross-continental bicycle ride to call attention to it.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that a veteran dies by suicide every 80 minutes. That’s an annual death toll of about 6,500 — more than all the U.S. military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan since those conflicts began.
“We need more support for our nation’s veterans,” said Staat, 35, a U.S. Marine veteran and retired NFL player who lives in Bakersfield, Calif. “They deserve our gratitude, and they should get the help they need.”
This sounds like a great way to raise attention to the plights facing our nation’s Veterans. Unfortunately, it sounds like Barrientos has had the exact same VA “care” I have in regards to prosthetic devices.
Barrientos’ military honors include three Purple Hearts and five Army Commendation Medals, and, as a double amputee, his wounds are quite obvious. Nevertheless, he said he’s faced challenges accessing care ever since his third tour of duty in Iraq — and it can be exasperating, because he’s prone to falls.
“I don’t have any feet … so it’s constant a fight against gravity,” he said. “Sometimes gravity wins, sometimes I win.”
Gravity prevailed one day in 2010 when Barrientos’ prosthetic knee gave out on him, causing him to slip and fall in his garage and break two fingers on his right hand. Barrientos said he had to pay the emergency-room bill out of pocket because the VA did not view the incident as an emergency.
He also said the suction valves, or seals, that hold his prosthetic legs in place have been broken for almost a year now, and he hasn’t been able to get them repaired with the VA’s help. So, he’s resorted to creating his own seals with thick white tape and clear plastic bags.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs said the agency could not comment on the specifics of Barrientos’ care because of patient privacy issues. But in a statement to TODAY.com, the VA Department said:
Let me summarize. “Blah, blah, blah, we care, blah blah blah, we’re overtaxed, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.” Hey, VA, you know what they say about excuses, right?
First of all, there is NO reason he should have had to pay for his visit out of pocket. A double leg amputee with his injuries will have a 100% disability rating and therefore is completely covered, emergency or not. Whoever told him that AND billed him for his two broken fingers is wrong. And two broken fingers is not an emergency? Seriously, what the hell is wrong with these people?
Second, the fight he is going through to get prosthetics care is unconscionable. And sadly, it is the exact same fight I went through three years ago. I needed prosthetic arm repairs for a year without getting them. In fact, I was looking at paying my way back out to Walter Reed to get the repairs I needed because my arm was literally held together by duct tape. It wasn’t until a couple congressman got involved that the situation was fixed. Not only did I get the help I needed, but I was wearing a brand new arm in a week. There is NO excuse for the lack care from VA prosthetics. These wars didn’t start yesterday.
The longer I deal with the VA system, the more I believe the lack of care from the VA boils down to one thing: accountability. The answer to every government problem is to throw more money at it. That is not the answer. The answer is to hold people accountable for their actions. Or in this case, the lack thereof. We need people who are willing to put the needs of the patient first. Until we get them, instead of a bunch of government employees who slip out at 3:30 every day, who hide behind closed doors and receptionists, who brag about all the hard work they do without any results to back it up, the problems will never be fixed. And no amount of money will ever change that. The VA needs personal accountability.