December 1, 2007 – Brett Wachsmith of Ellensburg was nearing the end of the semester at Central Washington University in 2004 when his Army National Guard unit was activated to Iraq. His professors did not make it easy for him to finish his credits before he left, he said, and he didn’t complete the courses and lost his tuition.
“Nobody was watching out for you,” U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, observed Friday after hearing the tall young soldier’s story at a hearing in Yakima.
Wachsmith, 24, is back in college now, after laying ambushes and conducting raids in Iraq. But his Army unit was just alerted that it will be redeployed. Though he didn’t plan to re-enlist when his contract expires in January, he may be forced to return to combat in Iraq due to the Army’s “stop-loss” program to address the shortage of forces.
A number of his Army buddies are suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. He called the military’s screening for the problem inadequate. It’s limited, he said, to a perfunctory question about “needing to talk to someone” in Iraq and a questionnaire when the soldiers return home. PTSD is a common, debilitating anxiety disorder that can afflict anyone exposed to grave physical danger and prolonged fear.
Murray said she will report Wachsmith’s experience and those of other Yakima Valley veterans to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs next week, when hearings begin on the nomination of Gen. James Peake to head the troubled U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The previous secretary was forced to resign recently after a scandal over poor care for veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the computer theft of personal data on millions of veterans.Murray, who in 1995 became the first woman ever to serve on the Senate committee, has since been recognized as a strong voice for veterans dealing with the giant VA bureaucracy. Her father was a disabled World War II veteran, and she interned during college at a locked VA psychiatric facility that treated Vietnam veterans with PTSD.
Many of the veterans who spoke at the hearing had harsh words for the VA. Among them was Dick Cash, a veteran of the Korean War and member of the Yakama Warriors Association. Cash said a backlog of claims forced him to wait two years before getting medical attention.
His claim “got swallowed up in the Henry Jackson building,” Cash said, referring to the VA’s regional office in Seattle named for the late Washington senator.
A Vietnam veteran whose hearing was damaged in the Air Force told of being put through three separate hearing tests and waiting more than a year to get a hearing aid. Murray said the long waits and backlogs will be among her questions for Peake, a former Army surgeon general, now retired. Murray said she expects Peake to be confirmed.
James O’Neill, a former Marine medic in the first Gulf War and now a physician assistant at the Yakima VA clinic, told Murray that after six years of treating veterans, he’s seen the system improve recently. The Yakima clinic recently hired a new psychiatrist. Veterans’ demand for services at the Yakima clinic is heavy. The psychiatrist was swamped with walk-in patients on her first day.
In addition, he said out-of-town treatment for patients with cancer, neck and back injuries and gastrointestinal issues is often slow and inadequate.
For example, oncology patients must drive over Snoqualmie Pass to Seattle for chemotherapy, which often leaves them sick and exhausted on the drive back. Veterans with orthopedic injures from improvised explosive devices in Iraq also feel worse after driving the round trip.
“That is not a good standard of care,” O’Neill said.
On hand to hear the veterans — many of whom complained specifically about the big urban VA hospitals — was Sharon Helman, director of the Walla Walla VA Medical Center. She encouraged them not to give up on the system, wherever they are being treated.
“If you have a problem with another VA facility, it’s our problem,” she said.