When Tammy Duckworth toured Hines VA Hospital in Maywood in late 2005, she had no desire to return.
At the prosthetics laboratory, staff asked to touch the state-of-the-art artificial legs Duckworth had received at Walter Reed Army Medical Center after a double amputation. Until then, they had seen only pictures.
In physical therapy, a worker gasped when Duckworth walked in with a cane. “If we can get our single-leg amputees to get up and go to the cafeteria, that’s an accomplishment,” she explained.
“And here I was talking about learning to run again,” said Duckworth, who lost both legs after her helicopter was attacked in Iraq. “I have to tell you, that first visit scared me off.”
It’s a challenging time for the VA, which finds itself responsible for the largest generation of wounded veterans since Vietnam, many with complex injuries that would have been fatal in previous wars.
These young soldiers are entirely unlike the VA’s typical patients: men past their prime, with chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, beginning to suffer the disabilities that accompany age.
Sgt. Joel Gomez of Wheaton, who became a paraplegic after his Bradley Fighting Vehicle fell into the Tigris River in Iraq, puts it bluntly: “Hines isn’t prepared for the younger soldiers. They’re used to the older guys who lie around and don’t complain because they’re glad they have someplace to go.”
“Your 20-year-old who’s lost everything and is lying there paralyzed . . . isn’t the same kind of person,” said Gomez, a Hines patient in 2004 and 2005.
Such patients can’t even surf the Web at the hospital; there is no access.
Officials say they recognize issues with younger soldiers and are working to respond. Training for staff in the latest prosthetic technologies and treatments for brain injuries has been extensive over the last year and a half, said spokeswoman Maureen Dyman.
Recognizing that younger vets may not want to discuss emotional problems with decades-older Vietnam vets, Hines is running special counseling programs for younger soldiers.
Last year, Hines was named a regional VA center of excellence for “polytrauma,” one of 21 nationwide. A team of doctors, nurses, therapists, psychologists and caseworkers coordinates care for these patients returning from war. A 2-year-old spinal cord unit offers the latest technologies.
“I really think the people at Hines have been trying hard to catch up,” said Duckworth, now director of the state Department of Veterans’ Affairs. “But why are we at a point more than four years into this war when the VA is playing catch-up?”