|Download PDF of this full issue: v50n2.pdf (24.8 MB)|
Fighting VA Privatization: A Personal Story
By Andy Berman
Everyone who lived during the US war in Vietnam has a personal Vietnam story of some kind, regardless of what they did during those intense and horrific years. Certainly all those who went to Vietnam in whatever capacity have a story to tell. Those who protested and those who resisted the war in any way were also deeply affected and have personal tales to tell. Even those who lived through those times seemingly without conscious awareness of the hell going on in Southeast Asia have stories to tell. The Vietnam War was integral to the consciousness and coming of age of a generation and more.
My own personal Vietnam story is somewhat unique. In brief, I was a Vietnam anti-war activist from the early days of US intervention in 1964 until the war ended in 1975. And for 3 of those years, I was a soldier in the US Army.
As history recounts, the US Vietnam anti-war movement was diverse, divisive, intense and widespread. It was also filled with frustration that for all the large and creative actions we took, nothing seemed to stop the madmen LBJ, Nixon and so many other criminals directing the slaughter in Southeast Asia.
One of the key things that kept us together was the opposition to the war that emerged in the US armed forces. This dissent took many forms, including fragging in Vietnam, refusals to be sent to Vietnam, and demonstrations by active duty soldiers and veterans. These developments made a major impact on my psyche. The idea slowly took root in my mind: Perhaps the best thing I could do would be to enlist and spread the anti-war message from within? This idea finally came to reality: On December 2, 1970, with a 4F classification for draft resistance, I enlisted voluntarily in the US Army for the sole purpose of spreading the anti-war message from within. It was crazy. I admit that now fifty years later. But when you are 22 and immortal, you think you can handle anything.
The story of my three years of anti-war work within the Army is recounted in the "Vietnam Full Disclosure Project" at https://couragetoresist.org/podcast-andy-berman/
I was in basic training at Fort Lewis in April 1971 when VVAW held the Dewey Canyon III action in Washington DC. The intense and sober reaction it caused among my fellow new recruits was palpable. You could tell by their nervous banter, worry and troubled looks.
Dewey Canyon III inspired me to put VVAW as the beneficiary of my Army life insurance policy. In my stressed out mind perhaps I thought that was a good way to insure my survival? In any case, I sent a copy of the beneficiary form to the VVAW national office and received a very kind supportive letter in response.
I spent 3 years spreading the anti-war message at the bases I was sent to: Fort Gordon, Fort Bragg, Fort Polk and Germany. By fortune or fate, not to Vietnam. I got into trouble, but with many civilian supporters and progressive legal assistance, I avoided court martial.
But the focus of this article is more on what happened as a veteran after I left the Army at the end of 1973. I have developed serious medical problems and experienced the impressive care in the Veterans Administration healthcare system. I have also seen the grave threat to that care in the ignoble effort to privatize the VA's highly successful public single payer medical system.
As soon as I left the Army, I enrolled in the University of Illinois, and promptly joined VVAW and participated in its countless Memorial Day and Veteran's Day commemorations.
In one of the sweet ironies of life, after the 1995 normalization of relations between the US and Vietnam, I went to Vietnam, fulfilling a deeply felt desire. I was working as a telecommunications engineer for AT&T when the need arose for technical assistance in a joint venture between AT&T and VNPT, Vietnam's public telephone company. For a week, I worked with Vietnamese counterparts in Ho Chi Minh City and explored the city I knew only from news reports. Before returning home, I visited the Cu-Chi Tunnels, now a tourist site, where you can crawl through the tunnels where Vietnamese fighters hid, literally underneath a US Army base.
Not long after, I was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), a blood cancer. CLL is known as one of the diseases caused by Agent Orange. Any US soldier who has CLL after service in Vietnam is presumed by the Veterans Administration to have a service-connected disability as a result of Agent Orange.
I wondered if it was possible that I had contracted CLL from having crawled in the Cu-Chi Tunnels many years after the end of the war? I contacted an Agent Orange specialist who told me that it was unlikely, but could not be proven one way or the other.
In any case, I went to the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. There I have been treated for many years for my cancer. On a monthly basis I get a checkup and blood analysis that tracks the disease. Every month I receive a 3 hour intravenous injection of blood plasma rich in antibodies to support my immune system impaired by leukemia.
At every step, I have been treated with great professional care and dignity by VA doctors, nurses and technicians who listen as well as talk. I am able to lead a normal life, maintain physical activity, continue to work teaching math and enjoy a rich family life because of the excellent care I receive at the VA.
Yes, there have been some minor problems encountered. The VA is a large bureaucracy and it sometimes demonstrates the shortcomings of bureaucracies. Internal communications and coordination have sometimes struck me as wanting. At times, the fact that there are staffing vacancies left unfilled has led to waiting times that seemed excessive.
My worst experience was when, presumably a staffing shortage, led the VA to outsource a part of my care to a private medical provider. The VA discovered that I needed an operation to remove a large sarcoma that lit up under a PET scan, indicative of a cancerous growth under the skin.
I was sent to a local university medical center for the operation, where things did not go well. It was a classic example of the advantages provided by the VA healthcare system over private medical care. The surgeon who performed the operation to remove the cancerous growth was not aware of the side effects of the newly released oral medication I was taking at the time to suppress the CLL. Did he not read my medical records? Was he so specialized that he did not follow the latest developments in leukemia care? I don't know. But his failure to know that my anti-leukemia pills should have been suspended for a week prior to the operation led to serious bleeding for weeks afterward. Had the operation been performed at the VA itself that complication surely would not have happened. Full information about my medical history would have been passed from VA Oncology to VA Surgery which would have been fully aware of the need to temporarily suspend my leukemia medication.
With the coming of the COVID-19 crisis, the Minnesota VA took on the infamous "Fourth Mission" of the Veterans Administration. It began accepting non-veterans needing hospitalization for the COVID-19 virus, providing much needed relief to private sector hospitals. But because of the danger of exposure to the virus at the VA hospital, non-urgent appointments by veterans at the hospital were limited.
Thus my monthly IV infusions could not take place as usual at the VA. To its immense credit, on a monthly basis the VA has sent a nurse to my home with the medicine and equipment to administer the infusion in my living room. I am enormously appreciative of this, which has saved me from possible exposure to COVID-19 at the hospital.
The nurses sent, however, were not VA employees. They were working for a private contractor engaged in providing medical care in home visits. Alas, it was absolutely obvious that they did not have the level of training and skills that I have consistently encountered at the VA itself. While nothing terrible happened, there were some uncomfortable mishaps that left me yearning to return to the VA hospital.
And so, my loyalty to the SOVA (Save Our VA) movement is a personal one. I join the monthly SOVA informational picket at the Minnesota VA with members of several veterans' organizations and the AFGE union of VA employees. This is our joint fight against the reactionary effort to destroy the most successful public single payer medical system in the US, a guiding light for the universal public medical system that is the need and the right of everyone in our nation.
Andy Berman is a life long peace and justice activist. He was a Vietnam war resister inside the US Army 1971-73. He is currently active in the SOVA (Save Our VA) movement in Minneapolis.
A demonstration by GIs just outside Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, NC in the fall of 1971.