I park in front of the Veteran’s Memorial Building. There is a man standing underneath the shade tree directly in front of me. His shopping cart tells me he is homeless. I wonder if he is a veteran. I guess he probably is. I am vaguely aware of a burning sensation that starts at the base of my skull and travels up, over my head, down my face and neck, chest, heart, arms, fingers, bowels and tailbone. Not a fire type burning, more like swallowing grain alcohol.
“Steady yourself, old girl. If you go in there crying it will be done before it’s over. Fucking pull your shit together.” I have to speak to myself this way. It’s the only way I can function.
The first set of doors I come to is locked and I remember from past visits that I have to go to the next set of doors to get in. The building is cold and empty but the sign on the veteran services office says they are open. In front of the door there’s a folding table on which are stacks of pamphlets advertising this or that to veterans:
“Join our motorcycle club! Riding around on a bike this loud is bound to let everyone know that you’re a veteran!”
“POWMIA! even though you probably weren’t a prisoner of war, because it’s not that kind of war, now is it?”
“Get a service dog so that people in the grocery store will stare at you and wonder what’s wrong with you that you have a dog in a store next to their peaches!”
A cursory scan of them returns nothing of interest to me. It’s all so typically patriotic: angry red, clean white, blue collar blue, glimmers of gold, meaningless promises, words on shiny paper. I can’t speak for other veterans, but none of that would appeal to me even if I was a man. As a woman it is even more useless because it assumes I am, as I was forced to be in the military, a “female.” Meaning yes, I look like a woman, hopefully a good looking one, but I behave like a man; and would therefore respond to exactly the same type of support as male veterans. Some women do, I’m sure, but not me, alright?
Immediately I regret opening the door. Door open, I am in too deep to turn around and walk out; I soldier on. A woman and a man, an older vet, probably from Vietnam but he looks alright about it, are wrapping up their discussion about whatever. I had met the woman, the veteran services representative, once or twice and suddenly recall what little help she had been each time. The man walks past me, folding a piece of paper in half. She stares at me blankly.
“Can I help you?” It is an icy welcome.
Well, duh. Why the fuck would I walk into this place if I didn’t need your help? I do my best to not let my frustration with feeling unwelcome show on my face but it manifests in my inability to find the words to explain why I’m there. I’d found it best, in situations like this, to keep it succinct.
“Do you have time to go over some claims questions with me?” I phrase the question as a peace offering of sorts. I mean her time is valuable – she is valuable – and I need her. A lifetime of dealing with unhelpful people has proven this to be the best technique to smooth over the ruffled feathers of federal workers, or anyone for that matter, who is underpaid and deals with the public.
“Of course, come in.” I follow her into her too large office and sit in the same chair I had sat in before. “What can I do for you?”
“I got a letter from the DOD asking me to fill out this form. They want to know what percentage of disability I was rated by the military when I was separated. I don’t know what the percentage was or where to find it.” I handed her the letter I had received, special delivery. I had to sign for it and everything.
“This is just for if there is a chance you could have been medically retired.”
I knew that wasn’t all it was for because I read the letter, but you can’t argue with people whose help you are seeking. Even though I know it is her goddamn job to help me, or at least tell me how to find the answer to my question, experience has taught me that if she does not want to, she simply will not. It doesn’t matter if she is supposed to. There is no recourse if I don’t agree with her. Sure, I can call her boss, but her boss is probably just like her, if not worse. Fuck. This bitch is really not going to help me.
“It’s only for if you went through a medical board.” She hands the letter back to me.
“Oh, yes; I did.”
“How long were you in the military?” Rapid fire questioning. She’s trying to prove a point. She’s not listening.
“Eight years.” I’m wasting my breath.
“Yeah, see this is just for people who were separated at like sixteen, seventeen years in. People whose career is cut short by their disability.” That seems a little subjective. The letter didn’t mention years of service. How did they or she know I wasn’t on a career trajectory? How could they or I prove or disprove that?
In truth, I was. Before I was separated I was working on a special project for the Chief of Naval Operations and had just been offered a job at the White House. Nobody I worked for wanted me to leave because I was a good Sailor. My military creases were always crisp, my boots looked good, my gig line was always straight, and I did my job. That combination alone would have ensured a naval career, but I had other things going for me as well. I was smart, I was pretty, and for all they knew, I toed the line. Plus, I largely liked the military. I liked the order and discipline. I liked being part of a team, protecting people who couldn’t protect themselves. I liked cruising around the ocean in a nuclear aircraft carrier as part of the greatest navy in the world flexing military might at scoundrels like Kim Jong-il. I liked feeling safe.
It didn’t matter. None of it matters anymore. I decide to cut my losses with that subject and move on to the real reason I came.
“I want to appeal my disability rating decision,” I said, bracing for the rejection I knew was coming.
“You mean you want to appeal your rating or the decision?”
“I’m not sure. I guess what I want is to ask the VA to rate me 100% disabled from the start. I think there’s evidence to support that.” I had a letter from my VA doctor written in March of 2011 and sent to the lawyer who was representing me in my appeal for social security disability:
“Ms PTSD has been in my care since July of 2008. She has been refractory to multiple attempts to treat her depression w/ both counseling and medication. She has good and bad days but the unpredictability of her condition does not allow her to function in a standard workplace or perform consistently. For these reasons, I have recommended she apply for disability as we have noted no significant improvement over the past 3.5 years despite a concerted effort on her part and the part of our mental health providers.”
“My doctor – from the VA – recommended I be rated high” –
“When did you separate?” She cut me off. Another bad sign.
“2008.” Why am I still in this office? Maybe I should just be a little nicer. Maybe I’ve offended her somehow. What is it about me that is causing her to act like such a bitch?
“Yeah, see, you can only appeal decisions within a 60-day time frame from when the decision was issued.”
When I requested the same thing a few months prior she had told me I shouldn’t appeal the decision because if I did there was a chance they could lower my rating. At the time I was in the process of being rated “totally and permanently disabled” and she said it was better not to rock the boat. Because the only reason I’m not standing in front of the Veteran’s Memorial Building with a shopping cart is because I have a husband with a good job and good insurance who is strong enough to endure the darkness I live in, I panic at the thought of the VA taking away my disability compensation. The compensation is proof that something bad happened to me on their watch. The compensation proves I’m not lazy. The compensation is never going to be enough, but it’s all I have.
Prior to being separated from the Navy I was told that my depression stemming from a “military sexual trauma,” the reason I was being separated, would lift as soon as I was removed from the military environment. People whose orders I was bound by law to follow told me that, I trusted them. Just the promise of things getting better was enough to convince me to buy in to that vision. As things were, I was too close to becoming a shitbag for comfort. I hadn’t yet received official reprimand thanks to the fact that I worked for civilians, but I often couldn’t get out of bed and my boss would have to call me because I was technically AWOL. I began drinking heavily because I didn’t know what else to do. I hated myself and didn’t understand why my body was betraying me. This was all compounded by how nice my bosses were about it. They tried to accommodate me at every turn. They wrote letters on my behalf and recommended me for special assignments, even spoke to my psychiatrists to inform them that I wasn’t a malingerer. I knew that if I stayed in I would eventually be labeled as one. I felt like one, too. I must not be trying hard enough. It killed me that I couldn’t.
I got two military contract jobs right out of the gate because I still had a security clearance. They were short contracts and they paid well. Mitt Romney was often on TV preaching the immorality of the sick and the poor, people who didn’t work and who lived off of welfare. The typical republican bag. It made me hate myself. It forced me to try harder. I instituted arbitrary rules to prove to anyone paying attention, that I was trying my fucking brains out. I’d get up at 5:30 AM because sleeping in is lazy. I didn’t keep coffee in the house so that I was forced to walk a half a mile to the grocery store and buy a coffee, even though I knew Suze Orman would have my hide for it. Even if after the coffee I was still tired, I wouldn’t allow myself to go back to sleep. Naps during the day were for stoners and the unemployed. I would apply for jobs and have no trouble getting them.
I’d do well at first and think that I was finally “better.” Until once again my body betrayed me and shut down. First came the sick headaches, then my work suffered and my anxiety would explode. I’d get out of bed at the last minute in the morning, often arriving to work unkempt. I was paranoid that I wasn’t doing a good enough job at work and would eventually be labeled a shitbag in the civilian world, too. I drank too much because it was the only thing that made me feel normal and because it had the added benefit of potentially killing me. Each night I would drink so much, so fast, that I would disappear. My body would still function, I could still carry on a conversation, perform normal tasks, but I, me, myself, my soul, wasn’t there. I often wonder who that person was, if she was not me.
I went to the VA for help, but that only compounded the issue. I would walk through the automatic double doors of the clinic into a wall of men standing around, reminiscing about the good old days. I could feel them staring at me.
“You’re too pretty not to be smiling,” a man old enough, if not older than my father would inevitably say to me.
Only his age and my inbred respect for my elders stopped me from telling him to fuck off. I would fake a smile, even as I was ashamed to do so. I would have panic attacks sitting in the waiting room and never left the clinic without tears in my eyes and a swollen, pink nose from crying. I brought sunglasses once in an effort to hide my vulnerability, but found that wearing sunglasses inside of a building only drew attention to me. I tried leaving through a side door and was severely chewed out by the director of the clinic. During one visit in which I confessed I was suicidal, a counselor trapped me in his office and threatened to commit me. He made me call someone, who promised they would watch me before he would let me leave.
Eventually I was referred to a “civilian” therapist for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR), the gold standard in treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I went to several sessions with this therapist, but never received EMDR therapy. Instead, she diagnosed me as a 4 on the Enneagram and told me that I was feeling sorry for myself, despite the results of my weekly depression scale tests which indicated I was severely depressed and suicidal. Of course I believed her. I tried harder.
It got harder and harder to try harder. I couldn’t get out of bed. I drank because I hoped it would kill me. The money I made from working was quickly spent. I was used to making a steady income. I applied for social security disability and an increase to my VA benefits. I was almost homeless. I began hearing voices and felt as if I was being watched all the time. I got a DUI. I wanted to die.
My Social Security claim kept getting denied. I was able to work, they argued. I had been working, they said. I appealed the decision right up to the top. I got a lawyer and sat in front of a judge, a court reporter, and a man who specialized in labor and begged for help. They all sat there, stone faced. The judge asked the man if he thought I could return to my normal profession in the IT field. If not, she wanted to know, what, in his expert opinion, could I do. Work as a maid in a hotel, he said. I just sat there crying. I couldn’t even get out of my own bed to make it, let alone make beds in a hotel.
Some months later a thick envelop arrived from the judge with a lengthy explanation of why she was denying my claim. Some of the reasons included:
- My Enneagram therapist said I was not depressed, I was just faking it for the money.
- The jobs I had after being separated proved I was able to work.
- My missed doctor’s appointments (because I couldn’t get out of bed) showed I wasn’t trying to get help.
- The DUI I received was evidence that I wasn’t really depressed, I was probably just hungover and an alcoholic.
- The fact that I would be unavailable to work for 5 days because I had to go to jail for the DUI made me ineligible for benefits anyway.
- My lawyer didn’t do something, or my lawyer did something the wrong way.
Basically all of my worst fears in one document.
“How was I supposed to know that? Isn’t there an exception? What if I get a lawyer?” My flashbacks of injustices fuel me to challenge her unhelpful attitude.
“No. That is the policy. They won’t accept your appeal and I won’t process it for you.” She is wearing a large gold medallion around her neck. I wonder if she is a veteran. She has that militant demeanor that I know too well. It is the voice in my head that tells me I’m a failure every day. It’s the voice that won’t let me rest because I’m lazy. It’s the voice that tells me I don’t deserve to eat or breath or exist. It’s the voice that makes me inch my way through life like a paraplegic climbing Everest.
“Thank you very much for your help,” I say as I gather my envelopes and stand to leave. She says something, but I can’t hear her. I want to bash her head into her desk and pull her hair out. I want to Timothy McVeigh the whole fucking place. I open her office door and it swings open a little too fast. My adrenaline is threatening to take over. Everything slows down. My blood turns to ice water. I smile at the clerk on my way out because it is the polite thing to do.
I want to flip the fucking folding tables topped with pamphlets aimed at nobody. I think about collapsing onto the marble floor in the middle of the Veteran’s Memorial Building. I imagine how my wailing would echo through the emptiness.
“She seemed so sweet,” a witness would relay to the local paper.
“I had no idea she was having such a hard time,” the moms at my daughter’s preschool would whisper to each other.