As controversy swirls around the troubled Veterans Administration and its ability to provide medical care to the nation’s veterans, one local veteran says the agency has long had issues serving its constituents.
Richmond Hill’s Donald Singleton, a Vietnam combat veteran who now spends much of his time working on behalf of other veterans, said the public should know the VA’s problems are nothing new.
“I’ve been dealing with the VA since 1969. This kind of thing has being going on I know for 40 years,” he said. “It isn’t anything new. I’ve heard stories that are unbelievable.”
Another Richmond Hill veteran, retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Rodney Denmark, said he didn’t deal with the VA until earlier this year when he lost his health insurance because the company he worked for as a paramedic went bankrupt.
“I spent 23 years in the Navy and 25 years after that as a paramedic and I had good insurance, so I didn’t need the VA,” Denmark said, noting he went to the Savannah VA clinic to sign up for health care and learned it would be a long time before he would see a doctor.
“It took three to four months to see one,” he said. “And one of the guys I worked with is a veteran and he was sick as a dog with what we’d call a sick call problem, but the VA told him it would be three months before they could see him.
“There’s no sense of immediacy. If you’re sick today and are relying on the VA, you can’t be seen today.”
Denmark enlisted as Vietnam was winding down and later served in the Gulf War.
He said he has two thoughts on what would make the VA better in the wake of news the head of the agency, retired Gen. Erik Shinseki, resigned early Friday.
“No. 1, removing Shinseki was not the answer. That just removed one person, but this is like an onion, it has many layers,” Denmark said.
He said he’d start by making VA clinics handle patients just like other health care facilities in the country.
“They need to have standards just like any other hospital and man up and see patients, and if they’ve got an influx of patients, they need to role up their sleeves and handle it,” he said. “”We couldn’t make appointments in Vietnam, couldn’t make appointments in Desert Storm. When that medivac chopper came in, you may have had one or two casualties or 12 or 15. You didn’t have time to schedule things, you had to use your resources wisely.”
And the bottom line, Denmark said, is “bureaucracy shouldn’t get in the way of health care.”
But if Denmark is fairly new to dealing with the VA, Singleton isn’t.
Wounded in combat in 1967, the former 101st Airborne Division paratrooper began going to the agency soon after he got out of the Army in 1969.
“I’d go to the VA, they’d throw these pills at you and send you home,” Singleton said. “Taking these pills was worse than the nightmares and other stuff that was going on.”
He’s since relied on the agency for his health care and seems to be satisfied with the level of care he gets. Singleton said the main problem he sees is the VA’s inability to communicate with veterans and provide better service.
He spoke of a recent dental appointment with the VA in Charleston, S.C. The appointment was at 9 a.m. and he left his home in Richmond Hill at 6 a.m. to be on time.
Singleton said he was almost in Charleston when he got a call from his wife saying the VA had called his home to cancel the appointment.
“It’s a lack of communication,” Singleton said. “The care is fairly decent but making appointments and the wait time you face when you’re in the VA system, that’s the problem. It should be better than it is, and I don’t know how to fix it. Maybe if they stopped giving all these bonuses to the people in charge — that might be a start.”
Old war, same wounds
Singleton’s military background has been well documented. He appeared in the Vietnam documentary “Shadow of the Blade,” about the helicopters used in the war and was honored Memorial Day by Richmond Hill Mayor Harold Fowler as the city’s “Hometown Hero” for his work as an activist on behalf of veterans and his involvement in city events.
Though long retired from CSX railroad where he worked for 25 years as a railroad engineer, Singleton’s military adventure began when he was just 18.
A Richmond Hill native, Singleton said he saw a cousin from Savannah home on leave after getting out of the Army’s jump school at Fort Benning. That was in 1966.
“He was sharp, man. Had those bloused boots and that sharp looking uniform, and I knew that’s what I wanted to wear, it’s what I wanted to do,” Singleton said. “Six months after I got in the Army I was in Vietnam.”
After infantry basic and AIT and jump school, Singleton was sent to Fort Dix and then on to Vietnam, where he did a tour and a half with the 101st Airborne Division, most of it in the jungles and rice paddies.
“We were constantly on search and destroy missions,” Singleton said. “That’s what we did. We were infantry out in the bush trying to kill people that were trying to kill you. It was just like going out hunting, only just think of the deal if rabbits and deer had guns and could hunt you right back. It’s a little bit different then.”
Singleton was wounded in May 1967 from a grenade thrown while his platoon was helping evacuate wounded soldiers from an earlier battle in a place called Quang Ngai near Duc Pho.
A fellow platoon member, Spec. Dale Wayrynen, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for Valor in that fight for throwing himself on the grenade, saving the life of Singleton and others in his squad.
Singleton said he still calls up Wayrynen’s mother to speak to her on the anniversary of her son’s death.
“After 20-something years I got to meet his mom,” Singleton said. “And I call her every May 18, the day he got killed. It’s powerful stuff.”
So are the memories. Singleton still suffers from delayed onset chronic post traumatic stress disorder and started seeking help after he got out of the Army following a tour in Fort Bragg.
“I didn’t go to college. Vietnam was like college to me, but I don’t know if it was the greatest time of my life. It was a bad time being in Vietnam, no joke about it,” he said. “And it’s something that I think about every day.
“When I first got home, I threw everything out I had that would remind me of Vietnam. I’d seen guys get blown away and that kind of stuff, and I didn’t want to remember it.”
He also lost his love of hunting.
“I don’t kill nothing any more,” he said. “I was a hunter growing up as a kid — my daddy used to hunt. But after Vietnam, man, I don’t kill nothing. I don’t want to kill nothing.”
Instead, Singleton works to help veterans. A member of several organizations — ranging from the VFW and American Legion to associations for members of the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions — he seems to view it as his responsibility to help others who’ve served.
“I’m on the phone every day with somebody,” he said. “It’s a constant thing and I don’t want to stop that. It’s what I enjoy doing, helping other veterans and it’s a part of my healing process … especially helping Vietnam veterans.”
Perhaps that’s partly because in Singleton’s war, those who fought and came home weren’t embraced by communities glad to see them back.
“I was born and raised in Richmond Hill — and I love Richmond Hill. But there wasn’t a homecoming. Nobody really knew I was in Vietnam but my family,” he said. “We weren’t getting a ‘welcome home’ back then.”
He believes that’s one reason today’s war veterans are welcomed with open arms.
“I think Vietnam veterans had a lot to do with the way we treat veterans coming back from war today, just from guilt. We love our veterans and that’s the way it should be. We treat them good today, and that’s the way it should be,” he said.
“But you didn’t hear about discounts for veterans when I was coming back and just out of the military. Now, a lot of places give you a discount if you’ve got a card showing you’re a veteran. I think that is because of the way the Vietnam veteran was treated.”
Singleton believes fixing the VA has to start at home, and ensuring all veterans get the care they need is an issue all leaders should address.
“The help for veterans should start, for lack of a better term, right here at home. It should start with county commissioners, the mayors, the courts if need be, the state representatives, the state senators, anybody that’s got power in your city or your state — they should be trying to help veterans,” Singleton said. “They should be trying to help, because if it wasn’t for veterans, where would they be?”