Upon his return from fighting in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, Bob Sanders just wanted to return to work and support his family.
As the head of maintenance at Transportation Partners and Logistics in Garden City, working and staying busy is all Sanders knows.
Sanders was an E-6 staff sergeant in the Army during both Gulf Wars. A few months after his return, the skin on Sanders’ feet began to peel, leaving him bloodied and in pain. Along with many other soldiers who served in Iraq, he returned with chronic urticaria, or chronic hives.
When Sanders learned of his condition, he filed a claim with the Veteran Benefit Administration seeking medical assistance. His claim was denied. He appealed the process, and was denied again.
Now, Sanders has given up; he doesn’t want to be denied a third time.
If he were to be treated, Sanders faces another problem. He’d have to take a day off work and travel three hours to the closest VA hospital in Wichita.
“I’ve gone into work with bloody feet, and the whole nine yards,” Sanders, 55, said. “I’m just sucking it up and driving on.”
Sanders is the commander of the Garden City chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He is just one of several veterans in his chapter who have had similar misfortunes when dealing with the VA.
Nationally, Veteran Affairs data show 50 percent longer wait times since 2014.
In the GOP weekly address last month, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Florida, said VA wait times have only gotten worse. Bilirakis said the VA is holding nobody accountable for the increase in wait times, but in the meantime, the people responsible for the wait times are receiving bonuses.
“Because we can’t throw money at the problem all the time, OK?” Bilirakis said. “It won’t go away just doing that. We need real and meaningful reforms at the VA.”
Ray Hernandez of Garden City is a Vietnam War veteran and is committed to educating and assisting veterans to navigate the VA system. He said VA is not proactive in registering veterans to receive benefits. He said the VA sees new vets as financial burdens.
“The VA is relieved when one of us dies,” Hernandez, 69, said. “That money goes back into their pocket when they don’t have to take care of us anymore.”
Hernandez is dedicated to helping vets register for health benefits. He refers them to Wichita, where they can get signed up.
Hernandez broke his back, and said he’s more than 50 percent disabled. With little help from the VA, he is forced to continue working as an entrepreneur in irrigation, buying and selling pipes.
Hernandez’s wife, Donna, said she is disgusted with the fact her husband still has to work. She said he already has done his job by protecting his country.
“He went to Vietnam. He should be home, resting,” Donna said. “They were shooting at him, and I just don’t think it’s right.”
Health care wait times
One of the major discrepancies between the VA and the veterans is the wait times to receive health care. According to the Wichita VA office, the average time a veteran has to wait to receive primary care is 2.49 days, which is lower than the national average of 4.68 days.
Wichita is also below the national average in speciality care and mental care. The Robert Dole VA Medical Center in Wichita serves more than 30,000 veterans across 59 counties in Kansas.
Sanders, who returned from Iraq in 2004, still is waiting to receive treatment for his feet. He has been home for more than 10 years and has yet to receive health assistance from the VA.
While the average wait times after an appointment is made is only a few days, the time it takes to get an actual appointment can take years. Sanders has been rejected time after time, saying he was told he had athlete’s foot.
Another issue is when the VA calculates wait times. On average, after the veteran applies for an appointment, he or she waits on average 16 days before being notified if their application has been accepted. If it is accepted, the VA sets an appointment. That’s when the wait-time clock begins..
When veterans register with the VA, they are given an information card to apply for the Veteran’s Choice Program. The program gives vets another option for health care if their situation meets certain criteria.
Robert Cain, Public Affairs Officer of the Wichita VA, said the first step to qualify for the Choice Program is determining if the veteran has waited 30 days or more for an appointment. Second, the vet has to live at least 40 miles from the nearest VA medical center, which is the case for veterans living in Garden City.
According to the VA’s website, the veteran then needs to locate a participating program doctor near the veteran’s hometown. What participating vets may not know is how difficult it can be to find a participating physician.
Sgt. Mike Fontenot, who served with the U.S. Army from 1974 to 1980 and now lives in Garden City, said the biggest issue with locating a physician is finding one that is willing to take less money. He said when using the Choice Program, the VA pays the outsourced doctor the same amount it would pay one of the VA physicians.
Cain, from the Wichita VA, confirmed this is an issue.
“Doctors don’t always want to take less money,” Fontenot said. “They expect to get paid the same amount they would from a non-VA patient.
Hernandez does not like using his choice card. He said there are an unnecessary amount of hoops to jump through in order to receive simple treatment.
Why Garden City?
Hernandez said Garden City is the home to nearly 500 veterans, and Finney County houses 1,500 to 1,700. While it’s a hotbed for vets, Garden City is not ideal for them to receive health care, his opinion.
Hernandez said that VA’s on the coasts in places such as Florida and California receive more funding and attention because of their location and population.
Fontenot, who used to reside in Florida, said he received much better care there. There are about 2.7 million veterans living in the Sunshine State.
“In Florida, there is so much VA down there,” Fontenot said. “You can stand on the porch of one clinic, throw a rock and hit the next one over.”
Fontenot moved to Garden City in 2014 because he was offered a job as a VA representative. Having worked in a VA medical office in Florida, he has first-hand experience handling veterans' paperwork. Perhaps that is why it’s his biggest frustration.
“The VA does not make it easy,” he said. “I’ve spent hours down in Florida trying to resolve things, and they would throw something else in your path. I was generally fixing crap.”
For example, a friend of Fontenot’s completed his paperwork, his claim was filed, and the VA had all the information to make a decision on his case. The veteran had been receiving benefits from the VA for a year before the overseers realized they had failed to notice the veteran was married.
“For an entire year, they were paying him as a single veteran, instead of one with a spouse,” Fontenot said. “That’s the kind of superfluous garbage that you encounter.”
With more availability of VA clinics on the coasts, it is fair to wonder why a veteran would remain in Garden City. Hernandez said the answer is simple.
Garden City is Hernandez’s home. It is where he lives and where he makes a living to provide for his family. He cannot just uproot his life and move to Florida. Hernandez is originally from Leoti, which is just an hour northwest of Garden City. His wife, Donna, grew up in Garden City..
“It would be too expensive to pack up and move,” Hernandez said. “I can’t just sell my house, pack up my things and be able to afford a house closer to a VA.”
Hernandez also said he doesn’t think it would make much of a difference. He said changing locations will not change the way the VA treats it veterans; it will only change the way a veteran uses the Choice Program.
Many veterans in Garden City feel that solving the issues at the VA do not come with an easy solution. Sanders and Hernandez agree that the foremost issue is the disrespect and mistreatment of veterans.
They said throwing money at the issue has not solved anything. Fontenot recommends that the VA completely start over.
“The system is out of hand; it is too big and too confusing,” Fontenot said. “They need to to shit-can everything and start over.”
Hernandez and his wife said the disconnect between veterans who need assistance and the VA system begins with those working in that system. Donna said the people at the VA making the decisions have never been to war, so they have no way of making a rational judgment about what type of benefits veterans deserve.
The Hernandezes agree that a major step in the right direction would be if the VA hired veterans to make these decisions. Ray said there are plenty of veterans that need jobs and can fill those positions.
“They think they can come in, and they know what’s going on,” Donna said. “Anybody that’s ever been in a war zone has issues, and are they going to keep screwing the veterans?”
Ben Felderstein is a University of Kansas senior journalism student from Long Island, N.Y.