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I had been in Iraq for only a few weeks when I was hit by an improvised explosive device.
During a convoy in October 2004, the IED detonated just feet from me, and I sustained shrapnel wounds along my left side. I spent half a day in medical care, just long enough to be cleaned up before I was sent back onto the battlefield.
For that incident, I received the Purple Heart, an award given to men and women who are wounded in combat. But war wears down the bodies of those who fight it, and many of us have come home with injuries, pain, and chronic conditions that aren’t directly tied to engagement with the enemy.
Two months before I left the military, I had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. I stepped into veteran life needing rehabilitation for my shoulder, and treatment for other wounds and injuries I’d sustained during eight years in the Marines and two deployments.
Getting proper, timely care from the Department of Veterans Affairs would become my next battle.
My wait time to get an initial primary care appointment with my local VA in the Dallas area was seven weeks. The wait time for a specialty appointment for my shoulder was eight months.
By the time I was finally seen by a specialist, I was told I’d have to have another surgery as my shoulder hadn’t healed correctly the first time. Had I been able to see a doctor when I first needed one, that second surgery probably wouldn’t have been necessary.
I continued to struggle with getting care when I needed it from the VA, and my health suffered because of that. I stopped going to the VA because I couldn’t trust that I would be well taken care of.
When the VA MISSION Act was signed into law in 2018, I was relieved for the veterans who do use VA care. I thought this was a great step toward real choice for veterans who are caught in the VA’s bureaucratic system.
But the law has not been implemented well, especially in the wake of COVID-19.
From the onset of the pandemic, more than 20 million appointments were canceled or delayed, leaving millions without timely care when they needed it most. Further, the VA is actively working to keep veterans within its own health care system rather than referring them to community care, even overruling doctors’ decisions and advice to their patients.
This is egregious behavior, mistreatment of veterans, and against the law.
The lack of dependable care for veterans is concerning in my home state of Texas. Veterans account for nearly 7 percent of our population, more than 1.5 million Texans. That is the second-highest state veteran population in the country, and the VA projects Texas will have the highest veteran population in the next 10 years.
But the growing veteran population in Texas is part of a larger trend of veterans moving around the country, bringing with them their unique health care needs. Veterans need a health care system that is dynamic enough to meet those changing needs, but the VA as it stands right now doesn’t fit the bill.
My work at Concerned Veterans for America is to build a coalition of advocates of better care options for veterans, and to give a voice to the countless men and women who have been mistreated or ignored by the VA. I know from experience what that is like, and I am determined to change the end of the story for others who are in the same boat.
What I’m asking for is what I and other veterans were promised – access to care when we need it. That means following and implementing the VA MISSION Act as intended and putting veterans first in their health care.
Ben Rangel is a strategic director with Concerned Veterans for America in Texas. He is a veteran of the Marine Corps and served two tours in Iraq.