Guest Post: Health Care, Female Veterans, and the Rights of Us All:
Today, the Rude Pundit is giving over the joint to Navy veteran and health and disability activist Karen Vasquez, who also happens to be a longtime reader of this here blog. You can read her stuff all the time at The Mighty Turtle. Check this out. It's compelling, funny, and infuriating stuff:
Perspective is a funny thing. It’s shaped by our experience in the present, and those who came long before us in the past.
I have been in the veteran’s healthcare system for eighteen years. At age 23, after my Honorable Discharge from The Navy, I was diagnosed with scleroderma at the Veteran’s Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. Later in 2007, I was finally diagnosed with Sarcoidosis in addition to scleroderma. Many of the symptoms are the same so it was tough to get that second diagnosis, but that’s a whole other post.
Little did I know that when my rheumatologists uttered the word "scleroderma," my odyssey began as "Mr. Vasquez."
During the early days of frequent visits to the Veteran’s Hospital, I shocked men the age of my father by admitting to them that, yes. I too am a veteran. I was a young, hot thing usually dressed in traditional college student attire. I didn’t look sick nor did I embody the textbook image of a veteran. In elevators, I was often asked if I was there to visit my grandpa. Then there was the problem with my name.
I suppose the name Karen and “female” in the gender part of a print out was not enough information to VA personnel reading said print out to understand that I was not a man. When being called in the waiting room, I would hear, “Mr. Vasquez?” The first time that happened, I looked around the waiting room to see not even a flinch from anyone else. Considering VA hospital staff almost exclusively saw men back in those days, it wasn’t all that shocking for me to be called "Mr. Vasquez." Eventually, I just got used to it. My name was butchered so much throughout my short military career, it was nothing out of the ordinary. ("Valasquez," "Vanquez," and "Sanchez," to name a few. Yes, Sanchez. I have no explanation.) Usually, it just boiled down to paying attention to see if someone was speaking to me.
Sure, it was the 1990’s and women’s equality was the norm...okay I can’t even type that sentence with a straight face. Women’s equality in the Veteran’s Administration was not the norm. Sure, women had served in some capacity since, oh, I don’t know, when we rebelled against England? But there were no programs in the very institution designed to take care of those who served to address specific needs of women. I did wonder if every now and then some radiologist was startled awake when one of my x-rays came across their light box in those dark rooms they hang out in and think, “Wow, that’s a really big prostate!” before taking a second look.
A woman not being considered a veteran in need of healthcare is in no way shocking, of course. Since the founding of this country, women have had trouble being considered anything other than property until recently. And more recent than you think. In the 1970’s, a woman could not purchase a car without showing she had permission from her husband. Pre-Roe v. Wade: A trip to the doctor for her lady parts required her to be accompanied by her mother or husband. Girls were told in one way or another that they were not in charge of their own bodies. If you find yourself thinking how this is relevant to veteran’s healthcare in the 1990’s, please slap yourself. Thank you.
I’m not going to bore you with my stories of public humiliation and degradation on active duty because I had a vagina. There are enough of those and many grislier than mine. I will dish a little: A certain Secretary of Defense who later went on to be Vice President once told me at a Submariner’s ball, “If they had girls like you in the Navy when I was your age, I would’ve joined.” Oh yeah, I’m sure all he needed was a pretty girl for him decline five deferments. Have another Coors light, Asshat.
The men I served with had their biases of women, not because they were hateful douchebags; it was because of how they were taught to think of women since birth. Many men I served with were good men. Hard workers whose team I wanted to be a part of, who taught me so much about body work and engine maintenance on boats, who encouraged my pride in a job well done. They just had a hard time wrapping their heads around serving with a female. Sure, they were responsible for their actions and words that degraded women, but their perspective was shaped by our fucked up culture of second-class citizenry being okay.
You would think that by the 1990s, the Veteran’s Administration would have read the memo that women had been “allowed” to serve and would be eligible for veteran’s healthcare. Nope. So, I learned to answer to "Mr. Vasquez" and to pick my battles and kick down some doors to get the care I needed.
Last month, while lunching at the VA Hospital’s cafeteria, CNN reported that the Air Force had ordered all material objectifying women be removed from work spaces. At first, I was furious that it was 2012 and that this even had to be ordered, but then I realized the timing was about right, when viewed in an evolutionary timeline. Those old timers who were offended that women be “allowed” to serve in “This Man’s Army” were dying off. The ones that were left were dragged with fingernails scraping the floor as they were being dragged into modern times.
I’m not delusional. These ignorant old timers are still around, some not so old and some just in different stages of evolution, like those assholes that accused Hillary Clinton of faking her serious injury and resulting blot clot.
These are the same types of assholes that called me a "sick bay commando" and other assorted colorful names. They think they are being cute and funny. But they are only exposing themselves for as the ignorant fucks they are. Now, I call them ignorant fucks and not products of their environment because there comes a time in everyone’s life when we get to choose how to travel down life’s path. We can choose to travel with an open mind to nurture a life of change and growth though new information, or we can choose to travel with our heads up our ass in fear. Sometimes, an enlightened path is chosen after people spend years inside their own anuses. Something happens, they emerge, and they choose to be decent human beings. And some learn nothing from life experience and maintain an existence of ignorant fuckery that would insult a caveman.
After 18 years in the VA Healthcare system, things are significantly different since I first entered its doors in 1994. I have had the honor of meeting World War II veterans and having the greatest conversations with them in waiting rooms. At my local VA, I made some amazing friends who are Vietnam Veterans, Korean War Veterans and Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. The old timers I am friends with chose the path of enlightenment. I’m not an idiot, I know they have biases so old it’s a natural response at times, but they check themselves and they have shown me nothing but respect and make me feel as an equal. I am a better person for having them in my life. I am lucky to have met them; I would not trade their friendship for a million dollars. They teach me something every time we get together. I could’ve chosen the path of anger and resentment, but that is so much work, not in any way helpful, and I would have missed some enlightening experiences.
There is no way I can describe in one post my experience as a female veteran in the VA healthcare system these past 18 years, without first talking about my perspective. When His Rudeness told me he was interested in my perspective, I realized I have had a front row seat watching and participating in the evolution of the Veteran’s Administration from an organization that saw women as hysterical lunatics who needed to be appeased just enough to keep them quiet to a government organization that takes care of all of its vets. There is still plenty of work to do, but we have come a long way.
Yep, we have centuries of damage to undo. And it will take some time because the only way to change such biases so ingrained in the psyche of those who chose the ignorant path, is to wait for them to die out. As old administrators and patients die off, the door is open to change. It may sound a little harsh, but as someone who lives by the words "adapt or die," it’s just plain realistic.
I in no way wish the death of these people; it's just part of the circle of life. And though our civilization has surges of stupid, it has surges of intelligence and enlightenment. I am optimistic because I have seen it already. When my son was 5 years old, in 2009, he looked at a placemat of the US Presidents I had just bought him after President Obama’s inauguration. He kept turning it over, carefully examining each picture. I waited for the question about ethnicity and lack of diversity. He set down the placemat, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Mommy, where is the girl president?”
The short version: if we teach our sons and daughters we are all equal it will be so. Someday.
So I will continue to write about the Viagra I take four times a day, go for infusions to keep my scleroderma and Sarcoidosis, stabilized. I will continue to use my Medicare coverage to visit specialists outside the VA healthcare system to recommend treatment because my doctors, the best at what they do in their specialties, asked me to see specialists outside the VA to help them treat me. My team of doctors at the VA want to ensure I get the best care, as they do for all of their patients, of course, but in their infinite wisdom, unlike private practitioners I have seen, they had the courage to say, “I don’t know" and help me find someone to get answers. The VA covers my medications because I have a 100% service connected disability thanks to scleroderma and Sarcoidosis. How did I get that service connection decision? Again a whole other post. Which brings me to TheMightyTurtle.com.
I write a blog about my 18 years of advocating care for my rarely heard of but not so rare diseases. I call it The Mighty Turtle because turtles are excellent examples of a species that has learned to adapt and overcome- they outlived the dinosaurs for a reason. Mitch McConnell is the exception when it comes to turtles. Just as I have outlived the dinosaurs that quickly dismissed me by diagnosing me with Hysterical Female Syndrome when I began reporting my symptoms. Had I given up and not continued to keep reporting those symptoms while still in the military, it would have been an even harder fight to get the life saving care I needed. So they called me Sick Bay Commando, Whiner, Stupid Female- oh I could go on with the terms of affection, but my point is: As upsetting as it was to go to see a doctor while on active duty, those symptoms ended up in my medical records, which gave me grounds to pursue lifesaving veterans' benefits that covered treatment most patients with my condition are denied by insurance.
I am lucky to be alive. And I am still here because of the lifesaving care I had to fight for. I write about it because I hope to save time for other patients with my condition(s). Everyone deserves the type of healthcare I get from the VA. I had to fight for the medical treatment because of m gender as well as the usually hoops veterans seeking a disability rating have to jump through, back in the 1990’s and now. I continue to get care in the VA healthcare system. And I can save other patients some time by sharing my experience. I have also had my time with private insurance. I know how to get meds outside the formulary. It’s no picnic, but it can be done.
One thing that irritates me is the idea that because I am a veteran, I deserve better care than everyone else. To me, that’s bullshit. Leading a long healthy life and having medical treatment when needed is a part of the pursuit of happiness. Lifesaving healthcare is a human rights issue, not something people should be pissed off about because they are afraid they might have to shell out a little extra on their taxes. I am tired of people vilifying the sick and the poor. That has to change and I aim to be a part of making that change happen. I could go on and I do at my blog. Stop by my Facebook page and say, "Hi," leave a comment, and/or ask questions. No topic is off limits. Especially to patients, their family, friends and caregivers. If I don’t now an answer, I will direct people to places or people who can help them get the answers they need.
I had to turn off the comments section of my blog because I was getting spammed into the next decade because I write about my experience with Viagra. I take it four times a day. Do you want to know if it makes me horny? I get that question all the time. If you want to know, I have a post about it.
Thanks for taking the time to read this post his Rudeness so graciously allowed me to post, and have a great day. If you feel like making a difference today: Visit The Mighty Turtle’s Facebook page, read about scleroderma and sarcoidosis, and just by sharing what you have read, you will change the world by raising awareness. It’s that easy.