What Went into My Notice of Disagreement with the Department of Veterans Affairs: Building My Case and Speaking of Support Services Deployment Work

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I’ve wanted to talk for a bit about the intentionality behind pushing (yet again) back on the Department of Veterans Affairs.  When I started this journey back in 2007, there were a number of actions I took two years prior that hurt making my case with the VA and I’m at the point of paying for it now because it’s harder to educate the VA regarding my deployment and the health consequences that came after that experience. I believed a lot of the dangerous cultural aspects of Marine Corps (ie. going to sick call means you are malingering) and let my personal health suffer, in various ways, from the end of the first deployment through the end of the second deployment.

Although I recognized something was wrong with my body from the chest pains that developed in March 2005, I let the setbacks at BAS (battalion aid station) and the staff’s medical incompetence keep me from pushing for a diagnosis.  I wanted to continue my work, and I wanted to go back to Iraq.

I minimized my frustrations to remain deployable.  In particular, I tried to minimize how the chest pains hurt to participate in the Technical Escort school in 2005.  The documentation to attend this school references chest pains as a disqualifying factor (I don’t have information to spell it out verbatim) but I decided to attend anyways.

The Technical Escort course was in Huntsville, Alabama at the time, but it’s now located in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  I tried pulling information from the Army’s Ft. Leonard Wood website and the Marine Corps detachment page for Ft. Leonard Wood but links for the Technical Escort course are dead right now, so you might need to backtrack if you want to learn more about this education course.

As the only female in my class, I tried–like I often did during my Marine Corps service–to juggle my biological differences against the needs of the Marine Corps.  To reduce the amount of changing time during our first training exercise, I “changed over” in the same room as my male peers.  To protect my privacy, I tried to keep my skivvy shirt (aka a green t-shirt) on under my PICS shirt.  The PICS shirt is worn under the hazmat suit to keep your body cool; it is connected to an ice block and the network of tubing on the shirt allows the cooled water to keep one cool, in our case, during exercises.  During the exercise my body wasn’t cooling down properly, and sure enough, my chest pains kicked in; although it became necessary to reveal to the cadre I suffered from chest pains, I was permitted to stay for the course so long as I didn’t have any other episodes.

The medical staff at Redstone Arsenal took EKG’s while I was there. They were unable to find any underlying issue so I continued with my training, knowing I owed it to the cadre to inform them if something happened again.

I tell you these things because we were all looking in the wrong direction for the source of my chest pains when I was in the Marine Corps; the concern was something was amiss with my heart.  My medical team was not making any connection to the stress of serving in Iraq, and my trust in finding the cause disintegrated significantly.  I started to believe it was something that would just be a lifelong issue so it wasn’t worth my effort to go back to someone who couldn’t tell me what the problem was or how to solve it.  I persevered through it, but the chest pains did not go away.  I took a second set of EKG’s during my second tour in Iraq.  Still no definitive answers.  The chest x-ray didn’t reveal anything either.

When I left the Marine Corps and talked to a civilian medical provider in 2007, she told me the chest pains sounded like they were stress-related as they were not triggered by physical exertion.  I didn’t believe her.  At the time, I told my husband and he didn’t believe her either.  We figured there must have been some environment exposure, but the last few years working with my medical providers here has taught me she was right.

There hasn’t been a good way to explain my first Iraq deployment to the VA though.  My Marine Corps medical record was sparse, and this reality made it quite easy for the VA to say there is no service connection in 2007.  After that frustrating setback, I avoided reaching out to the VA again for years.  I felt it was a continuation of the poor support I had during the Marine Corps.

When I lost Kiernan in November 2015, I watched and felt my life fall apart again for months like it had after returning from Iraq in 2005.  I had the hardest time going to work every day at ASU’s Tempe campus because it was where I saw Kiernan often preceding his death.  The pain it evoked reminded me a lot of the struggle working in and around our command center after Captain Brock’s death.  At the same time, I was finally looking at the US casualties for my deployment. I knew we lost a lot of people on deployment, but it was killing me inside to look at everyone’s photos and reading their stories.  After struggling to fall and stay asleep on numerous occasions and suffering through a chest pain that woke me up in the middle of the night (which feels like a heart attack, by the way!) I spoke with my nurse practitioner for support.

Again, I was not confident anxiety was the root of my chest pains.  I saw a cardiologist last year to rule out any heart issues as I did not have a full cardiac workup while in the Marine Corps.  Three years ago, I would have been too nervous to share these things with you, but if sharing my vulnerabilities helps another veteran (or someone else) who dealt with significant trauma in his or her life, I am happy something positive comes out of this trial.

It is much easier for me to write about my experiences than to verbalize them, which is part of why you’ll never find me in group therapy.  Please do not attack the way in which I share my experiences.  It has been a long process to understand how survivor’s guilt has traveled with me all these years and seeped into how I conduct myself in relationships, personal and professional.  I am better at seeing the situations that trigger my anxiety, but I’ve worked on it for two years now.  I am not an expert at coping and utilizing coping mechanisms or how to communicate your service to others; the tools at my disposal help me focus which has been a big help in constructing my notice of disagreement with the VA, but I can’t say what works for me will be the right solution for someone else.

Just like I had to change my approach regarding my chest pains, I reframed how I discussed my trauma with the VA.  The claims examiner didn’t give me the space to talk at length about the mortar attacks, the activity reports, or Captain Brock’s death when we met.  This information is something other people in the VA’s system need to know.  It’s ridiculous to ask about my childhood experiences, friends, family, work and school successes and failures, but to ask zero questions about my military service is a downright oversight.

Based on my experiences with her, I looked on the VA’s website for regulations on compensation.  If  someone is going to assess me, I know I can’t leave things up to interpretation.  I have to speak the VA’s language if they are going to understand me. The Code of Federal Regulations is something I found to be far more useful than sitting down with the DAV again.  While this might not be true of everyone, the DAV reps have been ineffective middlemen for me.  I brought in my documentation last year and the guy wrote a paragraph for me that I could have written without their involvement.

The local rep I saw cannot help me in this situation because my experiences do not look like anything he would have encountered in Vietnam.  The technology available on my deployment to do my job and to also communicate back home didn’t exist when he served.  I was on the phone at my barracks with my grandmother when the mortar attack that killed Captain Brock impacted on our base.  I had to keep calm with her while not knowing if we sustained any casualties so she wouldn’t freak out.  These are the kind of things that the VA needs to hear directly.  I lived in a world where I had a foot into two different worlds and couldn’t share information about my daily work without compromising our situation and my career.

I used the information below to help me determine how to communicate why my deployment was so stressful and how it affects my life today.  The clarification should also help non-veterans to see why it is harmful to hold stereotypes that veterans are either heroic or broken.  As you can see below, there are varying degrees of functionality for someone dealing with mental conditions.

For anyone who knows me personally or who has read my blog for awhile, you know I kill it in academia.  I graduated with a 3.96 GPA for my first Master’s degree and I am currently working on my second graduate program.  I like the mental challenge and I appreciate the opportunity to better understand society from this perspective.

At the same time, you’ve also had the chance to read how fireworks in my neighborhood brings me right back to the day Captain Brock was killed.  I do like fireworks, but not in close proximity.   I drank three 20 something ounce beers earlier this year shortly before ASU’s October 14th game against Washington because we were going to be around the stadium before the game and around half time.  Although I had the fireworks schedule (which excludes unplanned fireworks for touchdowns), I had trouble calming myself down, worried I’d have a panic attack in front of complete strangers if a firework went off.

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The new packet of information I provided to the VA is substantial, but it was done this way to help clarify why I couldn’t have my deployment and the sensitive nature of this work appropriately compiled in my medical record.  The packet includes:

-An explanation of my job on deployment

-An explanation regarding the classification of my work

-Journal records I kept during the deployment

-Information about software for our job that allows us to constantly receive information from units regarding killed and wounded persons

-A copy of my Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (NAM) citation to show them how the job is explained in euphemistic manner

-Every United States service member’s casualty bio listed on Military Times’ Honor the Fallen webpage for the time period matching my deployment dates listed on the NAM citation and who was killed in the Al Anbar province

-Information about my town’s permitted consumer fireworks timeframes (June 24th-July 6th and again from December 24th-January 3rd)

-Fireworks notifications I receive for permitted public fireworks displays near my home

-Civilian medical records to show my current treatment plan

 

I am proud of the strides I’ve made the last few years in coping better with stress, but I know there is a lot of work remaining.  This reason is why it was appropriate to push back on the VA again.  I need them to see and understand my experiences.  I need them to see what I am working on to process these experiences but it’s only possible if I also let them see the way these issues disrupt my life.

I know what triggers are present for me in my current work and home environment and I have to work through them; some days are just better than others.

I’m sharing them below so you can see these are large and small things; some can be planned for, but others require working through in the moment. 

-Fireworks and sometimes explosions on the news, in movies or on tv shows (reminds me of mortar attacks)

-Losing student veterans to suicide (reminds me of losing service members on deployment)

-Being startled by people when I don’t hear them but suddenly they are near me (reminds me of accidentally running into third country nationals on base)

-Sudden loud noises (again, another mortar-like sound)

-Leaving home for extended trips–>Not really the easiest to explain, but it brings out anxiety in me about “what if something happens while I’m away”.

 

Take care and good night.  Thanks for stopping by.

 

~Cheryl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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