I feel sheepish walking into a VA hospital for an appointment.
I feel especially guilty taking the elevator to my appointment. It's on the fourth floor, but when I'm surrounded by three folks in wheelchairs and another struggling to hold on to the side of the elevator, the functionality of my all-too-healthy legs becomes more apparent. I have five minutes before I'm late for my appointment, however, so on I board and up I go.
Only one of the wheelchairs is attended by a caregiver. The other two weakly push their vehicles into the elevator, one dropping a ziploc full of quarters. I dive to pick them up before they spill too much, only partially successful before handing the bag back to the man as the elevator doors close. The standing patient looks at me, smiles, and says, "Oorah, Marine." I'm wearing my Servicemembers United t-shirt, olive green with the SU logo on the chest, my hair freshly buzzed. I shake my head. "Naw, man, Army."
"Well, then Hooah." Still grasping the side of the elevator, he swallows, leans in close, whispers: "You know they got cheerleaders on the 4th floor today? Yeah man, they're signing autographs and everything." I fake interest, grinning. "No kidding? Man, I came on a good day then."
"Yeah, boy. They got brownies, and this Casino Day thing going on. You should check it out." I don't make any effort to let him know the cheerleaders hold no interest for me. I don't feel up to it, and besides, he didn't come to learn about gay rights.
He came to be helped.
I often argue that the entire VA budget should be incorporated into the larger DOD budget. If we make the commitment to send X troops to war, then we have to expect to pay X education costs and X medical expenses for the expected duration of that troop's life. One of the consequences of an underfunded VA is a larger bureaucracy that extends the application process and weeds out all but the most persistent applicants.
Veterans care tends to be mostly a casual aside when war is considered because clean-up is typically not a concept embraced by the human psyche. We throw ourselves into the most heated campaigns, basking in the excitement and shifting strategy with the latest nugget of information. The aftermath is not so exciting, mostly because it tends to be predictable and rife with administrative details. It becomes neglected as folks jump to the next fight, quickly forgetting there are things left to do, with much less resources.
I received a peculiar message in my inbox yesterday, from an individual upset that I was not committing my organization to the fight for ENDA, and that I was not allowing him access to our membership for his own needs. My point to him earlier was that Servicemembers United is primarily a veterans organization, and unless it is beneficial to our constituency to focus our resources on issues that are not directly related to repeal implementation and our overall trajectory to become the first LGBT veteran service organization (VSO), I don't see it fair to our membership to jump into other fights without good reason.
These grumblings are not unique, and I imagine there will be an expectation for every LGBT organization to jump into the ENDA fight whether or not it is appropriate to its mission. This is problematic, as this restricts the ability of organizations to specialize in what they do best in favor of appeasing a community beyond their scope. I will say one thing: though SU may end up joining the ENDA fight should it become relevant, I will not allow our membership to be exploited.
The gentleman concluded his message with an admonishment that he had "thought [I was] a better man...and a better soldier." Though I only served a short five years in the Army, I don't recall abandoning our own as a value the military holds in particular esteem. Because, in the end, we are servicemembers first, and always have been.
After the appointment, I see the man again the hallway, brownie in hand and chatting up a few other vets. He nods in my direction. "Did you get your autograph?"
"I did," I lie. "Did you?"
"I'm still eating these cookies, man." He dusts his hands off on his legs and limps over. "Hey listen, I feel weird asking you this, but I'm still waiting on my pension and they don't have these Casino Days but every once in a while." He had walked over to the hospital from the shelter across the street, and needed a few dollars to get by the next day or so.
I give him the only bill in my pocket, a twenty. Because I know he needs it, and I know I can't count on someone else giving him the money later.