Pre- and Post-Deployment Health Assessments: Modern Deployment Exposures and Experiences From an Iraq Veteran Perspective

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Last week, I heard back from the VA.  Yet again, they don’t consider my chest pains to be service-connected.   This reality kind of floored me.  I actually opened up to them in my December 2016 claim and while it might sound silly to say such a thing, in 2007, I kept things simple.

I didn’t tell them about Captain Brock dying.  I didn’t tell them about my kind of work.  I didn’t emphasize my exposure to mortars, although that information was part of what I listed in my records about different types of exposures while in the Marine Corps.  Back then, I was dealing with chest pains and I knew I didn’t have them before I served.  They started at the tail end of my first deployment, continued after I returned, and remained a part of my life through separation.  I just needed the VA to understand at my point of separation the chest pains were still ongoing and I felt they were related to my service in Iraq in OIF 2-2.

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If I had realized what a miserable experience it is dealing with the VA on the disability compensation side of the house, I think I would have pushed harder to find the right medical support while I was in.  For the few times I was willing to subject myself to medical about this condition, every person wrote ‘non cardiac origin’ for the pains but no one wrote in a diagnosis or suggested getting additional feedback on my situation.  What’s more infuriating is the parts where it reads ‘exercise induced stitch.’  Seriously, in the twelve years I’ve dealt with these pains only the primary care provider I’ve dealt with most recently has delved further into this issue and offered different suggestions because the pains were getting to the point they were destroying my quality of life during waking hours and would interrupt my sleep.

For over a year now I’ve wanted to have a conversation with you all about the Pre-and Post-Deployment Health Assessments and I think with this other VA encounter, I have the right foundation for this discussion.

The VA does not know our deployments the way we do and part of the problem is also the way the system requires ticking off boxes, ineffectually asking and not asking the right questions.  The forms we complete do not necessarily represent the types of situations we may encounter; let’s be honest here, the VA will never have records from the Marine Corps and/or the US government that 175 United States service members died during my deployment and these numbers best represent the information I was feed every day as part of my work in our operations center. I only know this information because I was determined to find a way to discuss my deployment, to shed light on other aspects of war no one seems to look closely at but is an important job all the same. I am only privileged to know this much of the extent of my deployment thanks to Military Times data.

In cases like mine my work was classified secret so how was I suppose to honestly fill out the forms?  As well, even if I could be honest, there also is not a sense of privacy to complete the forms properly not that I would have trusted completely it in full disclosure.  On my first deployment, I was the only woman on my team so I felt implied pressure to not be the “weak link” and during the second deployment a lot of stress from the first deployment crept up that I was not willing to discuss with my command.  Nor was my situation helped by the fact my chest pains occurred on deployment and yet again, no real resolution came out of getting them checked out.

My apologies I currently do not have snapshots of my first deployment paperwork.  eBenefits is being quite a disappointment and again not allowing me access to my military records.  The next time it’s available, I’ll try to download all my copies so I can share those details with you.  For now though, we can press forward using information from my second deployment documentation, the pre-and post-deployment health assessments.

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This form was filled out on July 11, 2006
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It’s kind of funny I still had my maiden name on my pre-deployment health assessment.  I was already married by then.

I’ve cut off segments of the documentation as my copies contain my Social Security Number but for greater clarity on this issue, below are fuller snapshots of the pre-deployment health assessment form that existed during my period of service.

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Below is the updated version of the Pre-Deployment Health Assessment Form:

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The revamp of the Post-Deployment Health Assessment is also of great concern to me, and I think all veterans of this era should consider how the inadequacies of the earlier form shape what sort of service/deployment experience is considered valuable, dangerous, and potentially traumatic.  The forum in which service members were offered to complete their forms is equally as important.  I can remember completing the first form in a classroom with a number of guys, classroom style as though we were taking an examination for a grade.  It was really a matter of “everyone’s got to do it”.  You fill out your form by hand and turn it back in.  You don’t want to get called out for your answers and you just want to make it back home.

I don’t recall completing the Post-Deployment Health Assessment at the end of my second deployment but most of the handwriting is distinctly mine; there are only a few segments where the medical personnel filled in information.  Coming home was very rushed that time.  I can remember meeting my husband and his mother and sister at the Sheridan, Wyoming airport but I cannot remember who picked me up in California.  I remember having issues with my military gear being stuck on the conveyer belt and an older gentlemen picking up my pack like it was nothing, hoisting it up so I could tuck my arms into the shoulder pads and settle it on my back.  (To everyone who was part of my transition home, I do not make this statement about not remembering your support lightly.  Coming home was that much of a blur.  I didn’t have a moment to catch my breath and will still say that process didn’t start until I left 3rd MAW in late May 2007 for terminal leave.)

My chest pains are the only thing I shared with the VA as a serious issue in 2007 and again, I am making the choice to share so much personal information because I don’t necessarily see our system getting better if there is a significant gap between what people expect their service to be like and the reality of the experience.  I hope by cracking open an issue like poorly constructed pre-and post-deployment health assessments provides a lenses for organizations like the VA to understand where they must also take a step back and learn from veterans what deployments are like.  I also hope current service members look at their needs before the needs of the organization they serve; at some point, we all leave the service and our personal health cannot take a back seat because we didn’t want to look like malingers/didn’t want to lose camaraderie/didn’t want to let down the team when a medical issue should have prevented us from deploying.

When I also decided to share with the VA this go around the fact I’ve dealt with tinnitus in the last few years and for a shorter duration, moments of hearing loss, I expected to have them listen.  I thought it was fairly reasonable to be ‘heard’ since I have recorded mortar exposure in my records but never sought treatment because I didn’t notice anything wrong at the time.

Right now my hearing is not to the point where I’ve lost full functionality and I sincerely hope it doesn’t degrade further but the hearing loss does scare me. (The tinnitus, on the other, is mostly annoying and only occasionally causes pain.)  These issues make me realize I cannot continue to take my hearing for granted and I should plan more for down the road if it degrades to the point where hearing aids might be needed.  For now though, I am pretty good about asking people to repeat themselves when I need them to and I remind my daughter to come into the same room if she wants to talk to me.  (She tries to yell from upstairs but I’m going to miss a lot of what she’s jabbering about so I make her come down and talk to me anyways.)

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I am already past my bedtime (Seriously, it’s 10:45 pm!!!) but in closing, take a moment to look at the October 2015 form.  It is much more inclusive.  (Please excuse the fact I cannot obtain a good snapshot that shows on each page the form is not to be handwritten.)

I will continue my saga with the VA another day.

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America In Times of Conflict: Creating Peace From Conflict

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Yesterday, I volunteered with a handful of other veterans to be part of a local community collaboration sharing our stories interwoven with pieces of The Odyssey for Odyssey Home: A Veteran Performance.  The Chandler Public Library held this event called Creating Peace From Conflict at the Chandler Center For the Arts in partnership with Arizona State University and Veterans For Peace.  We also had Veteran Vision Project photos on site for attendance goers to see along with the individual narratives associated with each photograph.  Once the footage is available, I’ll provide the link.

This collaboration starting off with group drumming and continued with our storytelling mixed with selections from The Odyssey.  A few musical pieces were played by Guitars for Vets and another veteran, Ahmad Daniels was there as a representative for Veterans For Peace, also sharing his story.  I know the event was scheduled to conclude with audience engagement, sort of a Q&A opportunity.  I only stayed for the Odyssey performance as I had another engagement in the afternoon and with today being my daughter’s birthday, I wanted to make headway Saturday on some other issues I’ve currently slacked on.

The theme of the performance was homecoming and I am quite thankful the event started with the group drumming.  While I did not choose to drum (I am embarrassed by my lack of rhythm) the sounds that filled the room reminded me of the wonderful performance given by citizens of Sao Vicente when I visited Cape Verde in high school.  My peers, teachers, and I landed to a beautiful musical performance at the airport that reminds me still music is a thread shared globally; we may not always understand each other’s words and actions but music binds us in such a spiritual way.

I loved being reminded of a place that was my home for a short period of my life.  Three weeks may not be an eternity but it’s sufficient time to be welcomed as a stranger, treated like a daughter, and remembered as a friend.  I am forever grateful for that experience and everyone who welcomed us into their country, their homes, and let us savor their culture that we might never have experienced in our lives had our paths not crossed.

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The airport in Sao Vicente

I think I was better able to embrace my role as a participant yesterday feeling like I was welcomed to this group much like how I was welcomed into Cape Verdean life.

My cohort of veterans included an ASU professor, my close friend and fellow ASU student, and a future student.  For our individual tales, we provided the audience a better glimpse of ‘homecoming’ as experiences shaped by individual perception and built a bridge that homecoming is not exactly a single finite moment in time, but a process.  I focused on the more immediate aspects of coming home to family tragedies and feeling like I did not fit into my life stateside.

I think a vital part of the construction of this storytelling was how well Robin Rio and her students shaped the music performance.  I met Robin back in the fall of 2014 when I started my graduate degree at ASU.  She is an Associate Professor with the School of Music and the Director of ASU’s Music Therapy Clinic.  I interviewed her to gain a better understanding of ASU’s chapter of Guitars for Vets.

Looking back, I did not ask great interview questions, but I think we all have moments like that in our lives where our place as students does not necessarily provide us a sufficient lenses to see and understand the larger context of our community because we are also shortsighted about more immediate concerns like passing a class, juggling work, and testing our fit with fellow students.  Seeing Guitars for Vets on campus though did inspire me to get out of my comfort zone about trying a musical instrument.  I purchased a Taylor guitar awhile back and now, with my reduced commute, can commit more to my goal of learning the acoustic guitar.  (Maybe I’ll be able to play a song before the year ends!)

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This talented bunch just wow me; there’s so much musical talent in this group. I cannot wait to share the performance so you can understand how beautifully they play.

 

America in Times of Conflict: She Went to War

Good afternoon, everyone.  The video for the Chandler Public Library’s America in Times of Conflict: She Went to War panel I served on March 11th is now posted.  I consider myself still somewhat of a beginner when it comes to public speaking and as such, have not watched the video yet.  I think if I do and see how nervous I was, I might not be willing to share it with you all today.  (I love written storytelling but I am dipping my toe into the territory of oral histories.)

I agreed to be a panelist to show support for my dear friend, Nancy Dallett.  She is the Assistant Director of the Office of Veteran and Military Academic Engagement at Arizona State University and she is quite passionate about oral histories.  She knew a past misstep with another oral history project left me somewhat reluctant to take on another but the way this project was shaped is what changed my opinion on the matter.  What I do like about a panel is the interpretative distance the moderator plays with the panelists.  She directs the conversation and keeps it in check, but her influence on what is stated via certain questions is tempered by the panelists.

I am quite proud of the types of questions asked of my fellow panelists and I.  Often times, I feel it is hard for us as women to be asked truly valuable questions outside the context of victimization.  I get stuck with questions that tiptoe around or center on the issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault within the military service branches and while I think it is important not to minimize those social problems, I think it is quite valuable our society continues to also see the professional opportunities for women in military service and the opportunities they can have post-servicing to enhance their lives and their family legacies.  Situations like the recent nude photo sharing being discussed in the news   can impact the willingness of women to join and/or to have their families’ support when considering service in one of our military branches.  (The ‘Marines United’ nude photo sharing scandal came up as one of the questions asked by our audience.)  As a female veteran, I want people who hear and participate in these conversations to understand any person (man, woman, or child) can be victimized at any point in his or her lifetime; it is more imperative we look for ways to make our society safer through education and awareness for everyone, not just groups of people or individual persons, and to instill appropriate punishments on the perpetrators so as to give the best measure of justice to the victim(s) of heinous deviant acts like this photo scandal.

Again, I want to reiterate the questions asked were quite considerate so as to not give you the wrong impression the panel was skewed far to the victimization spectrum of women’s issues.  General themes included our motivations for service, expectations of what Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam were prior to serving overseas, the reality of our living/working situations abroad, and concern over whether we thought our service had a positive impact in our lives.

Fair warning, the video is lengthy.  At almost two hours, you might want to set aside time to listen to it in its entirety or skip around for shorter conversations.  My daughter asked a question of me near the tail end of the audience Q& A section (proud Momma moment here!) so I hope you her piece of the presentation.  I didn’t expect she would actually have something to ask although she did ask before the panel began if it was necessary.

Take care and enjoy.

(If you have any tips on how to improve my presence as a panelist, I’d love to hear back from you.)