New local clinic on the horizon

Apr. 25, 2014 @ 05:01 AM

A new Veterans Affairs clinic will open in Sanford next year, but at a time when the VA system has been under fire both nationally and in North Carolina specifically, one local veteran said the new clinic on Broadway Road will help, but only with minor procedures.

For everything else, said Rufus Burney, commander of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) chapter in Broadway, people will still have to go to the VA hospitals in Durham or Fayetteville, “where it’s difficult to find somewhere to park, let alone get someone to take care of you,” he said.

At a roundtable held Wednesday in Raleigh, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and others clamored for reform. Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, was one of the speakers. He said in an interview afterward that those who risked their lives to defend the country deserve better than “lack of accountability and a calcified bureaucracy” from the Veterans Health Administration.

Burney wasn’t at the meeting but did voice similar complaints.

“I wish the passion for taking care of the people was the same as the passion of the men I served with in Vietnam,” he said. “The war didn’t end how we wanted it, but we were 19, 20 years old and did the best we could. ... We did our job, and we came home and can’t get the government to do the job they should be doing.”

The Broadway DAV is several hundred members strong, many of them Vietnam War veterans like Burney, 65, who spent nearly two years flying missions in southeast Asia as crew chief and gunner on an Army helicopter.

He avoided combat injuries but came back with hearing loss, Agent Orange exposure and, he discovered in 2010, a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder to go along with his medals. That 2010 diagnosis came the first time he ever visited a VA hospital, which he had avoided because he knew how backlogged such facilities were.

“The guy asked me why I hadn’t been,” Burney said of signing in on his first visit. “I said, ‘Sir, just look out in the lobby. There are guys out there on walkers, with no legs, no arms, clinging to oxygen. I don’t want to take their place.’”

Burney does go more regularly now, he said, but sometimes it can get frustrating. Some doctors have seemed less than interested in their work, he said, and there’s a high turnover rate due to more lucrative money in private practice.

He said it all makes him thankful that he doesn’t have more serious issues — but many do.

According to the VA, an average of 22 veterans kill themselves every day, mostly people 50 or older. And it’s not just veterans: In 2013, according to a recent Congressional report, nearly one in every five deaths among active duty troops was from suicide. In 2012, it was even higher.

“The biggest thing is the suicide rate, especially with Vietnam veterans and now with Afghanistan veterans,” Burney said. “It’s too high, and it’s sad that guys get to that point where they think they have to end it all. ... They felt like nobody cared, nobody was going to help. And that’s sad. Because they did their part and expected the government to do its part.”

The national VA system has increased it mental health funding by 50 percent since 2009, but hospitals and processing centers continue to face criticism in other areas. Hegseth, of Concerned Veterans for America, said his group recently set up a North Carolina office and that “we’re here for the long haul” to push for change.

And while older vets like Burney and Hegseth are concerned primarily about health care, younger vets have to worry about that in addition to transitioning out and getting an education.

Tristan Scott, 26, served in the Army from 2005-12, did one tour in Iraq and now is pursuing a business degree at Campbell University. He’s one of 250 veterans studying at Campbell’s main campus in Buies Creek, and he serves as president of the Student Veterans Club.

In general, Scott said, Campbell does a good job of looking after students who served — but the VA leaves something to be desired for those trying to navigate classes in addition to health care, all while still readjusting to civilian life.

“We’ve got one VA rep taking care of 250 students, which doesn’t seem fair because she’s got to make phone calls and do paperwork for all of us,” he said.

That’s only a drop in the bucket compared to the VA’s statewide woes. According to its own data, 30,000 veterans in North Carolina are waiting to hear back about their disability claims. The average wait for the office in Winston-Salem to process one of those claims is just short of a year.