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