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Young: U.S. should marshal resources to aid veterans

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http://www.statesman.com/opinion/conten ... _edit.html

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

I wish I could say that Casey Wozniak and I had a meaningful visit. I wish I could say that I brought comfort, cheered him, made him feel special.

That would be a lie. The window for that opportunity has passed. Shortly, so will he.

For several weeks while back in the states and among this community, any number of such opportunities presented themselves. But as the lung and brain cancer advanced, he was not treated as someone special. He was treated as someone else's problem.

We visited in the seventh floor at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center. The conversation was one-sided. Every word was labored.

At 50, his body is wasted. Tattoos that hugged GI-issue forearms now hang limp. A frame that held 190 pounds is now down to 130.

Wozniak isn't your garden-variety veteran. After an Army career as a military policeman, he became a civilian contractor. He provided combat support during Operation Desert Storm, then remained in Kuwait City after the liberation of the country. Wozniak is one of the legion who've suffered the mysterious laundry list of ailments known as Persian Gulf Syndrome.

When a cohort accompanied him from Kuwait for medical treatment, it was clear that Wozniak was not returning. What was unclear was where he'd be going next, where he would die.

Um, a VA hospital?

There should have been no question. He should have been in Olin E. Teague Veterans' Center in Temple. He should have been surrounded by a support team. He should have had family contacted.

Instead, after a brief stay at Hillcrest, he was discharged, an automatic door showing him the way out. He spent the next month bouncing around Waco, a few days in a motel, a few days in an assisted living center, before his condition grew too grave.

Had it not been for a friend in Dallas and one dogged veteran who chanced to meet him and ask questions, who knows? His hospital room might have been an overpass.

Only this week did word of his condition reach a son who could have been in on this.

Were Wozniak not so stricken, you could almost imagine him springing up in bed and saying he had been hired by the VA to test the nation's, and this community's, support system for its vets. In the test, we flunked.

Was there room at the Temple VA? Yes and no. Yes, if it had been made aware of the severity of his illness early. No, however, based on inadequate information or miscommunication between hospitals.

One loses count, here in a city with its very own VA hospital, of how often veterans go begging with problems that not only are urgent but also life-threatening. We've mentioned it often in the fight to keep Waco's VA hospital from closing. We say we have a culture of care. We didn't for Casey Wozniak.

One shudders to think what it must be like for veterans in towns that don't have VA hospitals.

One also shudders to think what will come when today's staggering new population of combat wounded starts filtering back into civilian life.

A House panel recently heard a study describing the Department of Veterans Affairs claims system as "on verge of crisis" because of backlogs and increased costs.

Meanwhile, a shortfall of $2.8 billion looms for VA health care services. Yet in recent testimony, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson only blinked when congressmen pointed out that his department had underspent billions relative to what it was authorized. No need for it?

Do we have the resources? Or do we not? Of course we do.

We have the resources to build whole cities overseas, to bomb and rebuild villages. But when men and women come home shattered, or when the bell tolls on a pact their country made to support them in their own time of need, where do we leave them? In the lobby.

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