Tom Purcell: Never forget our veterans

Tom Purcell

My dad's hearing was damaged more than half a century ago when, as a young man, he trained to be an Army military policeman during the war in Korea.

MPs were required to qualify for every weapon, including the exceptionally loud .50 caliber machine gun.

One day, while congested with a cold, the concussive impacts of the gun's noise caused blood to seep out of his nose and ear.

His hearing would never be the same and it grew gradually worse until he went completely deaf in his left ear before he was 45.

For years, he and my mother tried to apply for care from the Veterans Administration, but after going through the lengthy bureaucratic application process, they were never approved.

It wasn't until a year ago, in his 87th year, that my sister completed some VA applications to see if any assistance was available.

Truth be told, none of us expected he'd receive any help.

Our understanding, shaped by my parents' prior experiences and a series of negative news stories over time, was that the VA -- now named the Department of Veteran Affairs -- wasn't going to be the place to go to get better care than he was already getting.

Thankfully, we were wrong.

The VA arranged assessments with a hearing specialist and a retired primary care doctor who had both contracted with the VA. This time, its bureaucrats determined that my father qualified for a top-notch hearing aid that was far superior to the devices he'd been buying.

I was with my dad during these VA medical assessments and everything was incredibly professional and thorough.

Our waits in the VA's waiting room were never more than 15 minutes, and they always offered a glimpse into the lives of other veterans, whose lives had been impacted by their service.

Some were in wheelchairs and missing limbs.

Some, like my father, were elderly and finally getting treated for issues that happened long ago.

Some were younger and dealing with severe mental-health effects after serving tours in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and they need help, as veteran suicide rates are at an all-time high.

Our government owes these vets the very best medical treatment, but, until recently, they didn't get it.

Though improvements finally began to happen seven years ago in response to the VA's scandal over the long wait times vets had to regularly endure, the VA still must do better.

Congress authorized the temporary Choice Act in 2014 to allow vets to see private doctors outside of the VA's system, but it wasn't until the bipartisan 2019 Mission Act that things got much better.

The act established the Veterans Community Care Program that allows vets to receive primary care and mental health services outside the VA system through non-VA providers in the local community.

A subsequent survey found that more than 80% of vets were satisfied with their VA care, reports the VA website.

Those improvements at the VA were long overdue and must continue for all veterans, but will they?

According to Military Times, the VA recently announced it is phasing out its office in charge of community care programs, "a move that some advocates are decrying as unfairly limiting veterans' medical options ..."

I don't know what the VA's current leaders are planning, and I'm not sure I trust them.

But I do know that the men and women hurt in our wars should be honored and thanked every day, not just Veterans Day -- and must never again be forced to wait months for the medical care they deserve.

Tom Purcell is an author and humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Email him at Tom@TomPurcell.com.

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