Student veteran shares story

Eric Shapiro, Lamp staff

Getting out of the military can be difficult. Most see the checking out to be tedious and confusing. But many veterans will look back at that as the easiest step down a long road of difficulties facing veterans.

All the changes you must make in your day-to-day behavior notwithstanding, a great deal of veterans will find navigating the painfully slow, bureaucratic and seemingly designed-to-fail-you Veterans Affairs utterly disheartening.

About 18 months after leaving the Marines, I fell into a deep depression. I was recently divorced and shut myself out from everyone. With my depression and its wonderful partner alcoholism, I stopped caring about myself. I neglected medications and appointments and stopped being proactive. Naturally, the VA let me go; I was one less patient they had to worry about.

Today, I would like all the veterans, friends or family of veterans or prospective veterans to take heart in what is the trick to navigating the system:

Be proactive.

That’s it, really. If you need something from the VA, don’t just call and leave a message and expect a call back. Call every day, and leave countless messages on multiple voicemails. Badger them to notice you and your needs.

My declining health eventually led to several months in a hospital bed, an emergency surgery and many more months of physical therapy. Yet I see now the silver-lining. I learned that being proactive with the VA and taking your care into your hands is the most crucial bit to getting things done in the system.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were an estimated 13,506 veterans in Sangamon County alone in 2017. That’s a lot of us, and that leaves a lot of cracks to fall through. So, you call, you go into the VA’s Community-Based Outpatient Clinic and make your face and story known. Don’t let them sweep you under the rug and hope you won’t come back because with how overworked and undermanned the VA is. If you do that, they will let you go.

Take your life into your own hands and get done what you need. Look, odds are that when you were on active duty, your life was micromanaged. You’d stand in formation, get your name called, and you go to your annual check-ups when ordered to and then put it out of your mind the rest of the year. Now, you make your own appointments, you set what time and date works for you and when you go into those appointments it is of the utmost importance you do not hold back on what is wrong with you. Make follow-ups, meet with specialists, give mental health and therapy a shot. You’ve got nothing to lose and if your pride seems to get in the way know that it is better to be alive and getting help than a proud dead fool.

If you’re like me, you hated how the military often treated you like an incompetent child. Well, now we’re real adults really on our own, and we need to act accordingly.

Make your own appointments (you have free coverage for your first five years regardless of disability rating), get checked from head to toe and make follow-up appointments for anything amiss. It is our responsibility now to care of ourselves.

For me, I learned I didn’t have to go it alone. I had a friend that was willing to bend over backwards to help me and ultimately got me to the hospital in time for my life to be saved. And I have a father that dropped everything on a dime and took a same-day flight from Connecticut to North Dakota because I needed him.

If you’re struggling with your adaptation to being out in the world and can’t seem to land a job or stick with school, then reach out for help. Forget the stigma because it doesn’t exist for you anymore.

So I beg you all, drop the tough veteran façade, because it won’t be what you need for the rest of your life. Friends, family, kind strangers – these will get you through more than any combat boots, cargo pants and a “don’t come near me” demeanor.

Reach out and find that there are so many resources to help you if you only first help yourself. Reach out to your brothers and sisters because so many of us are feeling or have felt the same and we’ll get you through. Reach out and break that last barrier to success: Your own reservations.

Eric Shapiro can be reached at [email protected].