Regardless of your opinion on war and American intervention in foreign affairs, odds are you support and respect the citizens who put their lives on the line for the United States of America. The thought of Veterans – many of whom suffer from chronic physical and mental ailments – living without access to basic health care is not a pleasant one, though this is a reality that many former members of the American armed forces face in today’s world. These people have risked their own wellbeing for our country, and the least they deserve in return is quality medical care for the duration of their lives.
In 1988, a group of Vietnam Veterans took preliminary steps in the process of providing health care services to former U.S. servicemen and women when they organized the first-ever Stand Down. Based in San Diego, California, the purpose of this event was to provide medical, dental, legal, and other forms of care to homeless and needy Veterans with little or no access to such services. Over the last 24 years, the event has turned into an annual affair at sites across the country, and each year tens of thousands of Veterans benefit from the services provided. Stand Downs last anywhere from one to three days, and are crucial for the Veteran population in these difficult economic times.
On Friday, September 21st, about fifty CHC staff members converged upon the Connecticut Veteran’s Home in Rocky Hill for its version of Stand Down 2012. The event was attended by over 1,200 Veterans, many of whom were bussed into Rocky Hill from homeless shelters across Connecticut. The campus was filled with tents and temporary stations, covering anywhere from clothing needs to dental, behavioral health and medical care. Financial and legal services were also readily available, and many lines were already several dozen people deep by the 7 o’clock start time. The Community Health Center, Inc. operated an Access to Care tent and the Dental department, both of which were busy throughout the eight hour event.
CHC provided a number of dental staff members from across the state for the event. All of the new Community HealthCorps Navigators were in attendance, as were all of the Nurse Practitioners and Post-Docs in residency. By the 3 o’clock end time, the Dental department at Stand Down had completed 75 prophy’s (dental cleanings), 114 oral cancer screenings, 12 restorative procedures, and 3 extractions. Also, every Veteran who was seen by the CHC dental staff received a basic oral health education prior to receiving treatment. All in all, the response among Veteran patients was excellent, and many of these individuals went out of their way to thank the staff for their time and service.
The wait for some Veterans was over several hours, and one elderly gentleman joked that “there is a reason they call us patients, we really need to be patient”. There were several layers of registration that needed to take place before Veterans were seen, and the longest wait was between the final page of paperwork and climbing into the plastic chair aside a hygienist. I would be lying if I said there was no frustration or restlessness while patients waited for their turn, but most of the Veterans used this expanse of time to meet their fellow servicemen or women who were in the same stage of the process. Being a lifetime Connecticut resident, I found myself engaging in conversations about my birth place – New Haven – and the experiences that many Veterans had from spending time in the city where Yale resides.
There are dozens of anecdotes to be shared from such a day, but I’ll take time here to share at least one or two. At about 10 o’clock, I ventured into the waiting area to chat with several Veterans who were discussing their younger years spent in Connecticut. It turns out that two of them were from the Hamden-New Haven area, and we soon connected on this similarity between us. Before long, we were talking Hamden High School sports and sharing stories about our upbringings in that part of the state. At one point, the older of the two men turned to the other and said “I remember watching you on the offensive line, you false started the first game I went to”. Shortly afterwards, I came to the realization that these two men were not only avid football fans, but father and son. They served in different wars and therefore had spent significant time apart, but waiting at Stand Down offered them the opportunity to catch up on the little things. It was great to see and it definitely made their wait a little more bearable.
Another story occurred a little later in the day, where a HealthCorps Navigator was helping an elderly man fill out the insurance information on his paperwork. The man seemed to be in reasonably good health, but he was noticeably bald. When he nonchalantly asked “Am I still going to have time to get my hair cut?”, it took a few seconds before anyone around him realized he was joking around. Once he let loose a massive smile, everyone in the immediate vicinity broke out in laughter.
A second humorous experience came in a similar situation, though this time a Veteran was being asked his ethnic background for his personal profile. The CHC staff member asked the man “What is your race?” His response – in a serious tone – was “Daytona 500”. He proceeded to laugh hysterically for several seconds, and I would be hard pressed to say that I did not do the same.
Such stories made the day go by incredibly quick, and showed the positive attitudes that so many of the Veterans had despite the unfortunate situations they find themselves in. It really is heartbreaking to see people who served our country in such difficult circumstances, but it is better to focus on what we can do to help these heroes moving forwards than to lament the lack of care and attention they may have received in the past.
Stand Down 2012 in Rocky Hill was a success, and the Community Health Center, Inc. played a major role in the one-day event that helps out needy Veterans.
More information about Stand Downs can be found at http://www.va.gov/HOMELESS/StandDown.asp