When Rick Caldwell ended a three-deployment, 32-year military career in 2008, he thought his fighting days were over.
He was wrong.
The 62-year-old ex-U.S. Army sergeant major, one of about 7,000 military veterans in Bartholomew County, now finds himself on a different battlefield beyond those he knew in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On this one the Columbus resident fights for his Veterans Affairs medical benefits and care.
“It’s like I’m in combat all over again. It seems I’ve got to fight for everything I get,” said Caldwell, department commander of Indiana AMVETS and a civilian staffer at Edinburgh’s Camp Atterbury U.S. Army National Guard post.
After the national scandal this year involving veterans’ lengthy waits for medical care and lack of follow-up, many local veterans such as Caldwell say their clinical treatment at Indianapolis’ Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center is good to excellent. But they say getting their disability benefits through the regional, downtown Indianapolis VA office and dealing with problems with their medicines and costs is another story — and a depressing one at that.
“The people who handle our claims (at the VA regional office) have nothing to do with the military. I really believe they want us to give up and go away,” Caldwell said.
His latest fight: trying to keep a cardiac medicine that his VA physician said Caldwell definitely needs to guard against his heart beating abnormally. His medical records say his atrial fibrillation could be a life-and-death matter without medicine.
But VA officials recently told him he no longer needs the prescription, and they no longer will pay for it. Equally tough are recent prescription bills he has received from the VA office — for medicines the office is supposed to cover for him.
On other claims such as those involving sleep apnea, he has waited seven years for monthly benefits — and gotten no ruling or money. The only response he gets by phone or mail, even after help from congressional representatives, is “You are still in our system.”
Columbus resident Al McKown, 67, has experienced the same frustration trying to get full disability benefits for his extensive exposure to the vegetation-killing chemical Agent Orange in Vietnam.
The issue has become more urgent since receiving a diagnoses weeks ago of prostate cancer, he said, because the treatment may interfere with his full-time job with Driftwood Utilities.
“The actual medical care (at Roudebush) has been great. But what’s extremely lacking is the regional VA office’s handling of benefits over Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress disorder,” said McKown, president of Columbus American Legion Post 24.
McKown is rated with a 30 percent disability, which amounts to $500 per month for Agent Orange-related problems and a hearing loss.
In his application for more benefits, a VA psychologist recently told McKown that she suspected some of his stress through the years is linked to a bad childhood and not battlefield horrors.
He told her that she was badly mistaken.
“What are the chances of my seeing full benefits before I die? Slim to none,” McKown said.
Several calls placed over several days to Veterans Affairs, including its media staff in Washington, D.C., went unreturned. Bartholomew County Veterans Service Officer Thomas Crawford said he’s unaware of any major problems with local vets and their doctors’ care at the VA medical center or the timeliness of their medical attention.
He himself travels to Indianapolis for treatment of a cardiac problem and injuries to his lower extremities.
“I would say that nine out of 10 veterans I deal with have had good experiences (at Roudebush),” Crawford said. “I see the hospital as professionally run, well-kept, updated and modern.”
The average wait time for new primary care patients to be seen by a doctor at Roudebush is 32 days, according to spokeswoman Julie Webb. She said the goal is to reduce that wait to 14 days.
Among local patients, Crawford said perhaps the only small obstacle that sometimes arises is that some older patients tell him that they struggle to understand some doctors’ foreign accents.
But Crawford said he tells veterans that such international flavor is a blessing — a sign the hospital attracts some of the top, young physicians because of its proximity to the Indiana University School of Medicine.
Crawford theorizes that some delays that have arisen occasionally in south-central Indiana can be rectified quickly because there are other Veterans Affairs clinics in nearby metro areas such as Cincinnati and Louisville. Plus, smaller clinics operate in nearby communities of Nashville, Bloomington and Scottsburg.
Stevan Bultman, 66, of Columbus, praised Roudebush staff for the handling of his recent bout with pneumonia and the replacement of his aortic valve more than two years ago.
He said his only experience with delays surfaced during a four-month lag for that surgery’s scheduling.
“But part of that was my own fault for not jumping on things enough,” Bultman said.
Columbus resident Edwin Scott, 71, who served as an Army machinist in Korea, is among the satisfied veterans. He travels to the Indianapolis hospital about every other month in the van shuttle service provided by the Bartholomew County Veterans Service Office. Doctors have treated him for a variety of problems, including a benign brain tumor in 1991 and current edema and mobility problems.
“I’m grateful,” he said, adding that he sometimes has felt even a little guilty for his care since he did not serve in active combat. “I’ve always tried to be nothing but kind and polite to the people there.
“Look — I figure I’ve beaten the Grim Reaper for maybe 20 years,” Scott said, sitting on his downtown porch adorned with an American flag. “If it wasn’t for the doctors there (in Indianapolis), I would have been pushing up daisies a long time ago.”