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Living Proof of Why We Must Build a Strong VA | Commentary

By Garry J. Augustine There is a growing national debate about the future of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Some even question whether our nation can afford to provide future generations of veterans the health care and benefits the VA provides today. So, it seems important to ask, what would life be like without a financially solvent VA?  

For me, it would have meant a dramatically different life, certainly a much more difficult one. And, while it’s been decades since I served, I am sure the same holds true for countless veterans who are much younger than me.
I returned from my combat tour in Vietnam severely wounded, bedridden, facing multiple surgeries and unsure of my future at the tender age of 19. Fortunately, the VA was there for me.
After 18 months at Walter Reed National Medical Center, I was medically retired and turned over to the VA hospital in Cleveland, where they made sure my medical needs were met. The VA also granted me disability compensation so I could meet my financial responsibilities. After six more months of hospitalization and several surgeries, the VA got me walking by providing special shoes and orthosis bracing for my leg.  

After I started getting up and around, I was able to go to college on the GI bill through the VA. I even worked for the VA for a while when I was offered a job through a special program to hire veterans. When I bought my first house, I turned to the VA for a veteran’s loan with no money down.  

As I continued to have medical issues throughout my life due to my combat injuries, I went back to the VA for treatment and adaptations to my car and house to allow me to function, even when more surgeries relegated me to a wheelchair.  

All of this was provided without charge.  

Some people have proposed that, instead of an integrated and comprehensive VA, we should provide veterans with payment cards so that they can find care in the private sector. Does anybody really believe that the private sector would have had the expertise — much less the capacity — to take care of me when I returned home from Vietnam, and to provide the lifetime of support I needed? Does anybody believe the private sector can provide this level of integrated care for the wounded veterans who have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan?  

We know that the VA has problems that need to be addressed. But I am optimistic. As Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.”  

That’s what we have today — an opportunity — to use the attention that Congress, the media and the American public have focused on veterans’ issues to finally create the VA that veterans need and deserve. We must do that, starting now, so that every veteran of every generation has the opportunities I had.  

Garry J. Augustine is Executive Director of DAV’s Washington Headquarters. This post is a lightly edited excerpt from his speech delivered August 10 at the DAV National Convention in Denver.

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