Thursday, June 04, 2009

Hanging Around the Veteran's Administration Grounds

Last week Ken and I went to Milwaukee's Veterans Administration (VA) hospital. Ken was being evaluated in the "Pension and Compensation Clinic" and we had to start early in the a.m. Because of that, and the fact that we live a ways away, we went to Milwaukee and spent the night on the VA grounds in Domiciliary Building Number 43. I don't think I have ever before seen the word domiciliary.

The hospital is located at one end of the 25-acre property--beautiful property that includes rolling green lawns, a small lake, stately old trees, historic and interesting buildings, and the VA cemetery. I always find VA cemeteries so sad--the rows of identical little white headstones seem to go on forever and they seem so dreadfully anonymous. We passed the cemetery and a historic but sadly dilapidated chapel building (with a large sign on the side "We Need Your Help to Save Our Chapel"), and we arrived at #43, a building containing what is named the "hoptel." Veterans can stay there free of charge if they need to be at the hospital early. It was obviously also some sort of residence--I mean domicile--for veterans in need.

We entered the building and passed by the friendly "gatekeeper" who was manning a sigh-out book for residents of the building. Several disabled veterans were sitting on a bench just smoking, passing time and chatting, watching who came and went.

As with every VA facility I've ever seen, there was a general air of shabbiness. Where is it mandated that VA facilities are painted with ugly colors? No sage greens, creamy yellows, sea foam or cornflower blues here, just brown, ugly mint green, and bright aqua that made me think of the 1950s. We were checked in by a friendly employee in a cramped office filled with old furniture, battered file cabinets, and dingy walls. We went upstairs and found our room. It was pretty much as we had expected: two twin beds neatly made with white sheets, old mattresses, plastic chairs, second hand-store-style lamps. The bathroom was shared with the room next door, which (happily)remained unoccupied while we were there. The bathroom was equipped for wheelchair access, and while clean had clearly seen better days--cracked tile, old fixtures, wavy mirrors.

We dropped off our bags and went downstairs to the dining room. It too was brown. Nondescript brown floors, brown Formica-topped tables, brown wooden chairs, and beige walls. There was an old upright piano on one wall, one bright poster and one wall hanging that declared "Freedom Isn't Free." Otherwise the large room was bare. It was stuffy and overly warm to us, but we noticed most of the occupants wore long sleeves and even jackets. Dinner was fried chicken, canned black-eyed peas and collard greens (southern night at the domiciliary building?). It may have been the worst fried chicken I ever ate and the rest of the meal wasn't much better. Some men sat alone, heads down. Others sat together at the tables, and listening to the conversation was enlightening, sort of.

One Table
First vet: Hey, glad to see you back. How was the weekend?
Second vet: Okay, I guess.
First vet: Did you get laid?

Second Table
First vet: Hey man, what's going on tonight?
Second vet: a movie.
Third vet: *&^%*#@ movies.
Second vet: So, stay in your room and stop bitching.
First vet: So did you hear from your daughter?

Into the room came the guy from the entrance. He loudly announced that something (I didn't hear what) was missing. Had anyone seen it? Someone saw a white guy with a black shirt and white letters in the hallway. The white guys, and a few black ones, said they didn't know anything. One guy opened his jacket and said, "See, my shirt has no letters. Now go away."

All the staff and nearly every vet we saw smiled and greeted us, except for the one with no legs who sat in a wheelchair on the small sidewalk outside and smoked. Most seemed like individuals who were on the margins, guys who might be homeless if they didn't live at #43. Most were middle aged or better, but some were young. I noticed, as I have before, that nearly every Viet Nam era vet has a beard. Many have longish hair, some have ponytails. I wonder, are they all aging hippies? (Yep, my husband has a beard too.) I said to Ken, "I wondered how they come to live there. And I reflected on how many veterans are homeless on the streets of the USA. Especially Viet Nam vets. This is, I believe, a national disgrace.

There were signs of various kinds everywhere. Many of them were permanent and screwed into the walls. If you were putting up a permanent sign wouldn't you make sure it was reasonably straight before screwing it down? The number of seriously crooked signs was mystifying to me. Ken said, "volunteer labor." Maybe so.

Next morning we had a breakfast of powdered eggs and nearly burnt toast. I tried the oatmeal--a mistake. I've worked for large kitchens before, and I found myself wishing I ran this one. The staff was helpful and smiling, but their cooking was abysmal. They were on a tight budget, no doubt, but still...

There were more sad-eyed men, shuffling, in wheelchairs, smoking, but usually smiling and greeting us. I think it is sense of shared history, of fraternity. We would not have been there unless one of us was a veteran, so we were "in the club" so to speak.

At the hospital it was, as always, more of the same. Amputees, bearded middle-agers, full waiting rooms, long waits. A general air of shabbiness. Cramped offices. Equipment not new. Many employees of the VA do seem to be very caring individuals. I wondered how many of them worked in the hospital or other places on the installation because they genuinely care. Quite a few, I suspect.

And I am left to wonder, Why is the lovely chapel in such sad shape? Why is it that those who have paid a severe price for their service to the country--broken minds and bodies--aways seem to get leftovers? When I consider the federal budget and how it is being spent--well, something is very wrong about that.


God_Guurrlll said...

Oh my, these vets put their lives on the line for our country and this is the thanks we give them. Blows me away.

Gilly said...

Oh dear, a very dark brown experience!

I really have no idea how our ex-service personnel are treated. Many, I suspect, may be homeless or living solitary, boring lives in a bed-sit somewhere.

And I'm ashamed that I don't know.

Jeni said...

It is disgusting, really, that our government can't provide at least a better, more picturesque atmosphere for our veterans. Would some paint in a brighter color cost that much more than the drab stuff? Would it really break the piggy bank if the furnishings were updated a bit? Are the grounds in poor condition too or do they have folks who tend to them, keeping them clipped and trimmed and pretty? If money is that tight, couldn't there be a call for folks to volunteer to help and make these places a bit more homey and comfortable? Seems to me that there should be a solution to this issue if someone where to reach out and ask for help along those lines. And as to meals -having dealt for many years trying to feed my family on a very limited budget, there are ways -even when cooking in bulk -to make food tasty and appealing. This whole aspect is just downright disgraceful to see our vets -who should be honorec, yes even cherished, have to live in a setting like that or even to just have to go there for a treatment or evaluation, should not be subjected to being regarded as worthless or second-class citizens.

Dorcas (aka SingingOwl) said...

The grounds are very nice. There are sloping lawns, a fountain, flowers, and so on. As for palatable food, here is one small example. Regular oats is so much more substantial, healthier, less "mushy" than instant oatmeal--especially when it is made in a large amount and sits for a bit. And it is cheaper to use. So why not cook the oatmeal for five minutes instead of using instant and cooking it for one? Small stuff...but I could get on a soapbox.

Ruth said...

VA hospitals are sad places. I feel so sorry for the patients and their families and the staff. People don't want to think about all the problems that come from sending our people into wartime so they push it all away into a dark, dank corner so they can pretend it doesn't exist. If they don't spend money on it, maybe it will go away. If they paint it depressing colors and furnish it with depressing furniture, maybe people will leave. Then it will all vanish and they can pretend none of it ever was there!

Our country does a !@#$ job of taking care of it's vets because those who did not serve, generally, don't want to know.

the Dragon's Right Wing said...

As one of those vets (who exited with no combat or service-related disability) - I completely agree. What is worse is that the US does far better than most countries in the world.

Fortunately, the majority of our vets do not depend on these types of services - but far too large a percentage do - and they should be treated better than they are. There are volunteer organizations that help, but they are often under-funded and under-advertised, and thus get neither the usage nor the assistance that they really need in order to serve our vets.

As to the food - I just posted a poem on my blog that is quite relevant (although it is about Navy chow, not VA) ...

Dorcas (aka SingingOwl) said...

You have a blog and didn't tell me??? I'll go there asap!

LoieJ said...

My uncle was in a similar place in Milwaukee about 45 years ago, but it might have been the "county home." In any case, as you point out, the same money could be spent on better choices. I suppose that they just don't pay anybody enough to get good decision makers. Every time we go to war, we spawn a huge expense for the future that isn't considered in the equation.

BTW, my husband is currently a Vet doctor, but in a community based clinic that is nothing like what you describe. His patients are almost all older fellows and he enjoys them for the most part. He often does have "issues" when he has to try to get them into the big Vets hospital for further care.

the Dragon's Right Wing said...

@SingingOwl said...
"You have a blog and didn't tell me??? I'll go there asap!"

I just recently started it - and I haven't posted as much as I intended (a common malady, I suspect ) ...

Jules said...

You may remember I had a member's spouse, who is now deceased, who was treated at that very place for Agent Orange Disease. The family raved about the care he got there. They didn't really talk about other aspects of it, so I didn't know how drab and depressing it was.

I think it is criminal how this country treats our veterans, and I'm not just talking about paint colors...

JOHN W said...

I had stayed 3 days in building 43 at Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee. I stayed at their "hoptel" while I was being seen for a heart/lung ailment last year. I was to share a very small dark and dingy room with 4 other veterans. The air was foul and stuffy. There was a small bed in each corner of the room and all 4 of us shared the same bathroom. One of my roommates was an elderly gentleman, overweight, scruffy looking unshaven with gray hair and sadly had a really bad hygiene problem in which his skin condition would wreak of dead human flesh making everyone in the room gag. His patched-up jean overalls stunk of urine and feces. The poor old sole looked like he must have been homeless for sometime. Unfortunately it was unbearable to tolerate to be in the same room with him because of the foul stench. He said he was there for cancer treatment. The second gentlemen looked like he was sweaty and burning up. He said he had the flu and running a fever. He said he was an AIDS patient being treated for flu complications. I still do not understand why they put us all in a room with someone who had the flu. When me and the other fellows asked the hoptel desk clerk if they could house him in a separate room so we wouldn't all get sick, the response from the main desk was No and they laughingly said "Where do you think you are staying, the Hyatt?" Sure enough we all were sick a few days later...and with recuperating from my lung condition it became life threatening. My fourth roommate had some sort of mental health issue, where he was very unusually quiet but would occasionally yell out in the middle of the night screaming waking everyone in the room up. On day 3 everyone in the room had the "runs". We were not sure if it was the food or the virus our roommate had come down with. Something really needs to be done about the Milwaukee hoptel (building 43).