Battling the sound of silence: a veterans affair

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JROTC Cadet Col. Jennifer Monica, of Curie Metropolitan High School, left, and JROTC Cadet Col. Viviana Favela, of Lane Tech College Prep High School, prepare the wreath to be laid at The Spirit of the American Doughboy statue during the Veteran’s Day ceremony at Soldier Field, Friday, Nov. 11, 2016, in Chicago. (Alyssa Pointer/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

By Bernadette Battista

Vietnam War veteran Richard Realy, who finished his service ranked a lance corporal in the United States Marine Corps in 1970, said he has always been thankful to the Veterans Affairs members for their services.

Realy was born Nov. 5, 1949, in South Philly and later moved to Havertown, where, at the age of 17, he met a Marine recruiter at school. “The only thing I was good at was fighting,” Realy said, “so why not go and stop communism.”

Realy enlisted, was assigned to artillery, and manned a 105 howitzer which launched small missiles. The second night of his tour in Vietnam, his platoon got hit with more than 80 rockets.

“The rockets are coming in, and I am looking at a friend of mine,” Realy said. “Next thing I know, we are getting blown away. It was a direct hit, and his flesh landed on my arm, so I got on a machine gun and started spraying everywhere.”

When Realy returned home, he said he was a “little screwed up.”

“I rode up Rt. 320, ran up the sidewalk and waited until the light turned green, then jumped out in front of traffic and just made it through, you know that kind of thing,” Realy said. “Well, this woman caught the back wheel of my bike and I went down. The women got out yelling ‘That man is a maniac!’ I said, ‘Look lady, there is nothing wrong with your car.’ I picked up my bike, wheeled it to the gas station and called work. Then I thought about it.

“I was out of control, totally out of control. I would walk alley’s in the worst part of Marcus Hook. There I was thinking, I could be killed. Living on the edge in Vietnam all the time, it’s life and death 24/7 and when I came back, I found myself living on the edge. Especially when I rode my motorcycle, in storms 70 miles an hour. I was trying to get away from the Vietnam War and what it does to your head.”

Eventually, Realy realized he was suffering from PTSD, which was identified as a medical condition in 1980, 10 years after he returned home.

According to the National Center for PTSD, many veterans have suffered traumatic experiences like Realy, only to begin another battle when they returned home from war: the battle of silence, caused by the absence of war.

The National Center for PTSD also states, about 15 out of every 100 Vietnam veterans, or 15 percent, were currently diagnosed with PTSD at the time of the most recent study in the late 1980s, according to the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study. It is estimated that about 30 out of every 100, or 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.

On the battlefield, soldiers are exposed to several things, one including the vibrations of loud noises over extended time, now being linked to head trauma. The War Related Illness and Injury Study Center reports Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, may occur from any event that impacts the head, such as blast exposures, motor vehicle crashes or falls. TBIs also may be caused by flying debris or being physically thrown against the ground or other hard surface.

Another issue soldiers face is constantly living in fear of being killed. This condition causes the body to increase adrenaline, triggering a daily “fight or flight response,” a phrase coined by Walter Bradford Cannon as one of his theories of how the body responds to psychological emergencies. Daily exposure to these conditions cause symptoms of PTSD, such as feeling jittery, or always alert and on the lookout for danger.

In an article written by Col. Robert Gifford, Dr., associate professor of psychiatry, at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, adrenaline addiction is something soldiers returning from deployment are susceptible to and is described as the need to engage in the excitement-seeking behavior like reckless driving on a motorcycle.

But it wasn’t until 2014 when the U.S. Secretary of Defense at the time, Chuck Hagel, issued a policy for veterans with PTSD, who were previously given an other-than-honorable or bad-conduct discharge, to be able to upgrade their status to honorable for eligibility of veterans’ benefits.

Before 2014, veterans, who were dishonorably discharged because of symptoms related to PTSD, did not receive any Veterans Affairs benefits and are just now being notified of the change.

Democrat Richard Blumenthal a Connecticut senator and ranking member of the Committee on Veterans Affairs, has made it his priority to eliminate the backlog of veterans’ claims. He presses the idea of making Department of Veteran Affairs and the Department of Defense health records electronically interchangeable for faster turnover.

Along with status change backlog, is the backlog of veterans still waiting for appointments.

CNN interviewed whistleblower and retired physician Sam Foote, who launched the investigation into the VA scandal with the help of Arizona Republic investigative reporter Dennis Wagner.

That story led to CNN’s Scott Bronstein picking up the story and giving it national exposure, causing more whistleblowers to come forward and bringing light to veterans dying while waiting for care.

Foote said VA administrators were earning promotions and bonus pay by issuing reports that said patient access had improved dramatically. He said he realized the data on wait times was falsified.

Following the scandal, 2014, while Barack Obama was president, he signed a $15 billion bill enabling more facilities, medical personnel, and sending vets to private care to end delays for veterans awaiting care.

However, according to a May 11, 2015, report compiled by the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S., veterans are to call a private contractor to authorize and schedule appointments with private doctors, a process that veterans have said can take weeks.

“By the time a veteran sees a doctor,” said Gary Augustine, director of Disabled American Veterans. “Waits can be the same or longer than they would have been at a veteran’s hospital.”

“The bottleneck is still with the VA,” Foote said. “They are still dying.”

President Donald J. Trump also promises to address the Veterans Affairs backlog by offering a choice between VA hospitals or private health care facilities, but many veterans worry that if the VA must still complete certifications, would there still be a holdup processing claims?

There is one thing Trump is proposing differently, according to his plan to reform Veterans Affairs as outlined on his website: he wants to have a 24-hour hotline at the White House for complaints against the Veteran Affairs.

Today, Realy enjoys spending time with his family and said the only adrenaline addiction he has is the need to spend time with his grandchildren and “getting his grandchildren fix.”

He didn’t comment on his PTSD but said he is still followed for a benign tumor on his liver, which is thought to be caused by exposure to agent orange while in Vietnam. His doctors at Coatesville’s VA hospital continue to evaluate his condition and size of the tumor.

So far, the biggest threat the tumor presents is how much Realy can eat because of the pressure on his stomach, but he said that is not a good enough reason for surgery, yet.

Realy said his training and discipline as a Marine gave him the strength and will power to stay in shape over the years.

“I really loved the Marine Corps,” Realy said. “They did so much for me. They showed me you don’t have to knock someone’s lights out. You have a choice. They teach you discipline.”

Contact Bernadette Battista at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu