Back in 1892, British poet Rudyard Kipling wrote about how his country treated the regular British soldier during peace time and during war. Part of that poem, “Tommy Atkins,” reads:
For its Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ’is country,” when the guns begin to shoot;
An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!
In 1975 when we were pulling out of Vietnam and the Army was going through what is called a reduction in force (RIF), company grade officers and enlisted men were encouraged to find another line of work. At the beginning of the war we were heavily recruited but near the end, it was: “Goodbye, Johnnie.”
The same thing will be repeated again in the near future as we begin to withdraw from the Middle East. Soldiers will be encouraged to leave the service just as fast as they were sought out to fight in the beginning of the war. I hope, however, we will not be as callous as the Brits were in the 1800s or we were in 1975.
By 1975 this country wanted to forget the Vietnam War and it seemed to want to forget its soldiers too. The returning soldiers were cursed and mistreated and made to feel like they were criminals and outcasts. This treatment extended to our government who sent us to war. Veterans who needed treatment for war-related illnesses, both physical and emotional, were sent into a medical system languishing in a neglected and dilapidated state. Improvements hadn’t been made since the Korean War. The Veterans Administration, which is now known as the Department of Veterans Affairs, was sadly outdated and crumbling.
I left the Army in 1975 after having spent six years training and serving in various Army hospitals. The care in these facilities was excellent. The burn unit at Brooke General Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, was world class and Walter Reed was a nationally recognized medical training facility. After a few months of searching for employment, having recently been discharged from the Army, I happily accepted employment back home at the Mountain Home VA Medical Center.
It was a bit of a cultural shock, coming from a modern Army medical environment into a World War II era facility. The VA had been financially ignored by our national legislators for years and most facilities like Mountain Home had been allowed to deteriorate. I found the staff to be caring and professional but under-staffed and underfunded. It was not unusual to find ceiling plaster falling on hospital beds as the old buildings cracked under the pressure of age. After all, the hospital was built in 1903 and now, some 70 years later, it was beginning to fall apart.
This all began to change in the 1980s and 1990s. Congressman James H. Quillen loved the grounds at Mountain Home and held a special place in his heart for our local veterans. He had seniority in Congress and used his influence to direct funding toward this local veterans hospital. Federal money came in to build a new nursing home, a new domiciliary (soldiers home) and a new hospital. Improvements were made to make the hospital electrically independent (generating its own power) and placing lines underground, making them immune to ice storms and deep snows. Since that time there have been improvements such as patient privacy.
When I came back from the Army in 1975, everyone admitted to Mountain Home was given a bed on an open ward with 20-25 other patients. In the 1990s rooms were created but it was still at least four patients to a room. Renovations are being made now so that there will be private rooms and semi-private rooms for all patients.
One of the most common complaints I heard during my 30-some years at Mountain Home was related to parking. It is a large campus designed many years ago as a soldiers’ home and not as a modern medical center. Now, as the medical community has grown and developed into a classic teaching and research medical center, parking for patients, employees and medical students has reached the breaking point.
A parking garage was considered at one time, but according to current law/regulation, veterans would have to be charged for parking. This did not seem to be a reasonable solution.
It was, however, a stroke of genius when management decided to implement valet parking for all outpatients. Now, instead of having to hunt all over the campus for parking and then walking great distances to your doctor’s office, you merely drive up to the front of the domiciliary/primary care building and hand your keys to the attendant. It is that simple and your walk is extremely brief.
We owe our veterans more than just our respect. We owe them medical care and financial support for the injuries and disabilities they incurred during their service. They took time from their busy lives to serve and defend. Let us not forget their service, even years after the wars are forgotten. Let us support them by adequately funding services like the Department of Veterans Affairs and our National Cemeteries.
On this Veterans Day, show your pride in these men and women by attending veterans services at the VA and at your local veterans memorials.
Dan Kyte of Jonesborough is a retired clinical social worker and health care administrator.