LANDSDOWNE, Va: A new perspective has enabled leaders at the Department of Veterans Affairs to improve the level and accessibility of care provided to servicemembers, the department’s assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs said here Oct. 27.
“I bring with me to VA a really different, new perspective that is coming with all the new leadership,” Tammy Duckworth told an audience at the 2009 National Guard Bureau Public Affairs Training Workshop. “We have for the first time at the VA a large percentage of the leadership who are disabled servicemembers.”
Ms. Duckworth, a major with the Illinois Army National Guard, lost the lower portion of both legs when the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting was shot down in Iraq in 2004.
Eric Shinseki, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, who retired in 2003 as the chief of staff of the Army, was wounded while serving in Vietnam.
“One of the things that we bring to the table with the new group of folks who are there, is the understanding that it takes a team,” Ms. Duckworth said. “We really understand that we are all part of a bigger team and that for us to deliver the care that we need to our veterans, we can’t do it on our own and we need other people to help.”
Ms. Duckworth said she is reminded of the actions of the door gunner on her aircraft on the day that it was shot down.
“He grabbed his weapon, he stumbled out of the aircraft and he went to the rear of the aircraft, where the bad guys were jumping into pickup trucks and heading toward us, and he held the line,” she said, adding that he had been wounded by AK-47 fire with one round still lodged in his body. “He didn’t know if he was going to survive or not, but he wasn’t going to quit his post.
“He couldn’t put a tourniquet around his own waist, so he bled, heavily,” she said. “But he wasn’t going to quit, this young man, this young Guardsman. He stood his ground and he bought us time and we all got out of there. But it took every one of the four of us (who crewed the aircraft) to get us home.”
Ms. Duckworth said that same approach is being implemented at the VA to improve the care servicemembers receive.
“(One) of the things we are doing to maintain what the president calls ‘our covenant with veterans’ is expanding the number of services that we have,” she said. “We have also created a network of 768 community-based outpatient clinics, 232 vet centers, outreach and mobile clinics and when needed, we have contracted with local providers to provide specialized healthcare.”
For some veterans of past conflicts, getting access to that care may be a difficult process because of missing or lost medical records.
“We’re finding guys … who are trying to go back now, 40 years later, and track down their old platoon sergeants and company commanders, so that they can actually get proof that they were indeed serving in that area (and were injured or wounded in the line of duty),” Ms. Duckworth said. “That’s not going to happen anymore as we move to the new system of electronic records.”
That system, called Virtual Lifetime Electronic Records, is designed to follow the servicemember throughout his or her career.
“From the day you enlist to the day you are laid to rest, we are working to have complete electronic records, so you won’t have to go back out and prove to VA 15 years down the road that you were serving next to where the oil wells were burning and you were breathing in a lot of nasty smoke and now you have a respiratory illnesses,” she said.
Changes also are being made in medical care for women.
“This is the first time we are going to be having such a large number of female veterans coming to VA for healthcare and that presents a whole unique group we have to provide care for,” Ms. Duckworth said. “In all of the females who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 44 percent of them have come to VA for medical care. That’s a significant percentage.”
For that reason, VA specialists have begun to provide pre-natal and post-natal care for women.
“Just last week, VA (doctors) delivered a baby for the first time,” Ms. Duckworth said.
Ms. Duckworth’s job is getting these messages out to servicemembers.
“I think the biggest part of my job is just conveying the message of the intention of VA and getting the message out to my brothers and sisters, who are still in uniform that VA is here for them,” she said.
Ms. Duckworth said she does that by talking with individuals and by working with people in other agencies outside the VA, such as the DOD, the individual service components and the Department of Labor, which offers employment and education programs for veterans.
But getting that message across to veterans is, at times, a challenge.
“God bless our men and women in uniform, but they’re stubborn,” Ms. Duckworth said. “They are hard-headed and they are stubborn and many won’t come to the VA for help. I’ve known so many vets who have not gone to the VA for help, because they think they don’t deserve it. Or, they had somebody in their unit who got blown up and is now missing a leg and they tell me, ‘I’m OK, I can deal with this. I just blew out my knee on an air assault, but my buddy over here, he lost his leg. I want you to take care of him, I’ll be fine.’ Well, 20 years down the road when there is arthritis in that knee and he can no longer walk, I’m going to make sure that Soldier gets the help he needs.”
And for Ms. Duckworth, the inspiration to do that goes back to Nov. 12, 2004, the day her aircraft was shot down.
“What motivates me is Kurt, that door gunner with the AK-47 round,” she said. “He did what he could, with the weapon he had and what wits he still had about him, and he held the line and he bought us enough time so that we could get out of there. When I couldn’t take care of myself, it took the rest of my team to take care of me.”
That door gunner is now a pilot.
“Kurt just graduated from flight school, where he learned to scare his own passengers. I’m so proud of him,” she said. “(But) he’s going to sit on that AK-47 round for the next 20 years of his service in a vibrating aircraft and that round (may) move around in his tailbone. At some point, it may move to where it hits his spinal column. I’m going to make sure that 20 years down the road when he may need an operation the VA will be there to take care of him.”
For Ms. Duckworth, it’s all about taking care of the troops.
“It’s about this country’s covenant, our commitment to our veterans, making sure that we will stand by them,” she said, “that we will be the ones to hold that perimeter to make sure that those services are there when our veterans need them.”