I had a bad taste in my mouth, and I was choking on my pride. Neither would show up on my new patient questionnaire; there was no room alongside the motley combination of minor physical complaints and major psychological issues that I detailed. We wouldn’t have time to discuss that in the examination room today, but my few moments in the waiting room were my own.
Fourteen years ago, I spent the fifteen-plus hours of my journey from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Washington, D.C., listening to rock and roll anthems of freedom and independence won. Nestled into the first comfortable airplane seat I’d occupied in a long time, I basked and beamed, at least to myself, if not visibly. I was free of the yolk of the second military service contract I’d voluntarily signed, and I couldn’t have felt more alive.
I buzzed with energy within the confines of my seat, rewinding and reviewing the nuanced details of my new independence. For the first time in a dozen years, I wasn’t “traveling as a representative of the Air Force and the Armed Forces” regardless of whether or not I was wearing the same casual clothing popular with civilians of my age and economic status.
I was no longer mandated to carry two forms of ID, and I wasn’t required to show one of those forms of ID in order to buy a loaf of bread that was priced proportionately to my income. I was expected, but not bound by employer-controlled law, to arrive at a particular place at a particular time. There was mutual agreement instead of command. And there was appreciation.
That was the big difference. I don’t have a problem with authority. My girlfriend (and everyone who knows me) will attest that I am a natural rule-follower; I never had much of a problem with that. My complaint with my time in the military was the utter lack of genuine appreciation shown to me and to everyone I knew who deserved it.
Don’t get me wrong. There were plenty of hollow awards and congratulatory ceremonies. I suppose that if that’s what does it for you, then that’s probably pretty satisfying. To me, it always seemed more like a formulaic matter of course than a genuine display of appreciation for a job well done.
This was compounded by the disproportionality of negativity to positivity. A service member could spend the day successfully saving lives and helping the government avoid international incidents, but what really mattered was that their bunk wasn’t made tightly enough.
I found validation in separation. My time in the Air Force had been like an unhealthy relationship during which I actually began to believe that I lacked any intrinsic value and was not worthy of anything but the shallowest displays of pseudo-praise. In the truest fashion of bad relationships, a drunk supervisor once told me that my problem was that I “had it all backward” — I thought the Air Force needed me, when really it was me who needed the Air Force.
Confronted with the notion that my ego had gotten out of control and the consistency of the message that it was I who was being ungrateful to the Air Force, I began to assume I was making too much of my feelings, and that this was just the way it was for everyone everywhere… until another option appeared.
When, out of desperation for anything different, I made up my mind to leave, I was immediately courted by new and attractive suitors. It became startlingly clear that the problem wasn’t that I thought too highly of myself, but that I had accepted a tragically and unrealistically low opinion of my own real-world value. It was during the dawn of this realization that I flew from Hawaii to D. C., both ecstatic to be moving forward and angry about the time I’d already wasted.
It may come as no surprise, then, that I decided to make my break with the military a clean one. I wholeheartedly embraced my new civilian life and cast my very recent military life behind me like I’d gotten a restraining order on it. I avoided talking about it. I avoided thinking about it. I avoided interacting with it in any way. This included ignoring all of the benefits to which I was entitled for my service. I was too hurt and bitter to accept even what little consolation the military had to offer me.
Throughout the years that followed, the various veterans and VA representatives I met out in the world would take turns urging me to connect with the VA and to take advantage of the benefits to which I was technically entitled. Still my separation paperwork and various hard copy proofs of service stayed packed away in dusty boxes while I stubbornly clung to my insistence that I had no use for them.
It was through one of these supportive veterans that I reluctantly found my way into the first VA medical clinic into which I’d ever stepped. I’d assisted him in crafting an academic paper for a college class he was taking, and he suggested that I meet him there to collect payment. He was from out of town, and it was a good compromise, he explained. I felt like a rabidly critical atheist entering the Vatican under false pretenses.
The facility was beautiful. It was clean and bright, comfortable and friendly. The employees and volunteers working there were incredible in their earnest intentions to help the veterans who’d come to them for help. They worked diligently but honestly to assist the veterans for whom they appeared to hold a sincere respect and concern. It was the diametric opposite of my entire active duty experience.
With more than a bit of hesitation, a good deal of self scrutiny, and the waning remnants of a long-held grudge, I eventually made my own appointment. Sometime in between the invasive psychological questions and the physical examination of my chronically aching hands, I surrendered.
The clinic had been relentless in their good-natured, comfortable assistance. They’d ensured my registration was simple and seamless, they’d patiently but consistently reminded me of my upcoming appointments, and they’d streamlined all paperwork and administrative tasks, effectively eliminating the hurdles that generally keep me from following through on real-world necessities like medical care.
Despite my unwarranted scepticism in the waiting room, the doctor to whom they assigned me was equally brilliant, compassionate, and realistic. She attended to each of my various issues with exactly the appropriate amount of focus and concern. She retrieved medical records that I must have only made more difficult to find with my lack of recollection. She scheduled follow-up appointments for me with various specialization clinics. She called me two days later to personally review and discuss my blood test results (even though there was no alarming news), she ordered my medications and had them sent to my home, and she recognized me a week later when we happened to cross paths in the street.
For all of my criticisms of the military and for all of the regret I maintain for the amount and the manner of time I served, I never fail to duly recognize the military for the invaluable things it did provide me. Similarly, while I do not know, and therefore cannot deny, whether or not the overall state of Veterans Affairs benefits administration is less than ideal, I attest that my personal experience with them has, thus far, been extraordinarily positive. I’ve come to learn in life that sometimes two entities are not meant to completely coexist, and that it doesn’t mean that they cannot recognize and appreciate each other’s worth and value.