by Barbie Perkins-Cooper
As a writer and the proud wife of a Vietnam Veteran, I research information about the military, especially informative material to assist Veterans in their battles with the Veterans Administration.
Recently, I discovered the heartbreaking story of Denise and Terry Soles and their devastating experiences with V.A. medical benefits and care during the illness and eventual death of Terry Soles.
Denise Soles and I have a bit in common. My father died from esophageal cancer in 1999. Terry Soles was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1998. Denise is a feisty, determined woman who does not take no for an answer, and like me, she documents the actions of medical care along with the comments doctors express.
Like Denise, I have watched how the V.A. treats our veterans. It is not a pretty picture. Each time I visit the V.A. hospital, I get angry when I see weak, physically challenged, and ill veterans sitting in the waiting rooms, many times all alone, anticipating hearing their name called. The lack of personal compassion and professional medical care irritates me.
Each time I observe men and women sitting in wheel chairs, or using a walker or cane, sitting while watching HBO or some form of cable TV in the overhead monitors, other veterans waiting might flip through old, outdated magazines, waiting – like a herd of cattle anticipating the time when the pasture line will move and their name, or number, will be called.
Once with my husband, we were waiting for three hours, just to meet with his endocrinologist. A few minutes after 5pm, the doctor he was waiting to see passed by us, carrying his blazer and a bag on his shoulder. My husband nodded and the doctor approached.
He was leaving for the day, but could give us fifteen minutes of his time. How considerate! Perhaps others would kick and scream like a child, but Veterans are accustomed to this form of treatment. Standing, or sitting in line, like a herd of cattle awaiting their time… After all, the military taught them to wait. And wait. And wait. Cattle headed to pasture, troops headed to a war zone, veterans headed – to?
Military families serve our country with pride, working together as teams to protect, defend, and serve the United States of America. While serving our country, troops are promised they will be taken care of by the ‘US of A’; unfortunately, that is not the case in the Twenty-first Century, nor has it been the case for many Veterans.
Repeatedly, veterans must battle an emotional war, just to get the benefits promised. Many of these veterans give up this battle, frustrated after waiting too many years, just to get the approval of what they were promised during combat battles, or their dedication to military service.
Veterans were trained to work together in teams and not to make noise. For others, the widows and widowers, the battle continues while grieving over the loss of a loved one. Such is the case for Denise Soles and her family.
Terry Soles was a typical, all American kind of guy. Dependable, hard working and very devoted to his family. Terry was proud of his country, the United States flag, and what it represented, along with his military service. He served in the United States Navy as a jet mechanic in Rhode Island, during the Vietnam conflict. He was the first to serve others, but when it came time for him to seek help, after his military service, the United States, and the V.A. let him down.
Denise Soles was married to Terry Soles for 21 years. Together, they raised a family, living in Ohio where Terry worked in construction. In early 1998, life was good. Terry took pride in his work. He went the extra mile to make certain his customers were happy with his handiwork. A boisterous 6’ tall, weighing 228 pounds, Terry Soles was well respected in his community. In March 1998, everything changed, starting with Terry ill with severe stomach pain, fitful diarrhea, and a misdiagnosis of the flu. After several days of bed rest, a decision was made to see the doctor again. Diagnostic medical tests were completed.
Anticipating an astronomical medical bill, without medical insurance, Terry decided to go to the V.A. Hospital. Thus began a nightmare that changed everything. Driving to Canton, Ohio for diagnostic testing at the V.A. clinic, Terry and Denise waited for a proper diagnosis. Little did they know these journeys for medical tests would result in six months of not knowing what was wrong with Terry. When it was determined that the tests were not extensive enough, they traveled to the Cleveland Ohio V.A. Hospital in September 1998. Whatever was wrong with Terry was still undiagnosed and could be growing.
The Louis Stokes Cleveland V.A. Medical Center appeared to be a friendly atmosphere with caring professionals who would care for Terry. After the testing was done, Terry and Denise were sent home. “We were told to go home and we would hear something within a few days,” she said. Driving for two hours to their home, the family tried to have a normal life. Denise went to work. Terry attempted to work, but it was difficult to focus on work while his health, the diagnostic tests, and the demands of his life were on his shoulders.
When the phone rang, the doctor informed Denise that a small tumor was found in Terry’s esophagus. The doctor was apprehensive about telling Terry the news on the phone, so a medical appointment was scheduled. Driving back to Cleveland, the mood was silent. Meeting with the doctor, the prognosis of esophageal cancer was shared. Terry had a small, malignant tumor. Since the tumor was so small the medical doctors were not concerned, nevertheless, surgery was recommended.
October 16, 1998 Terry had surgery that was a four-hour procedure. On this date, Terry weighed 173 pounds. Since March 1998 – seven months after the diarrhea started, he had lost 55 pounds. Removing 1/3 of his esophagus, and 1/3 of his stomach, Denise was told the surgery was a success and he was now cancer free.
The V.A. doctors said he would be in Intensive Care for four days, moved to a regular hospital room, and when he was able to walk and eat a meal and the staples were removed, he would be dismissed. The doctors could not explain why he was suffering with the extreme diarrhea and stomach pain, but it was not related to the esophageal tumor. Additional testing would be required and chemotherapy or radiation therapy was not recommended since the malignant cancerous tumor had been removed.
Esophageal cancer is one of the fastest growing cancers in America and the survival rate is about five years. Most patients will require chemotherapy. This was not the case for Terry Soles. Esophageal cancer is a difficult cancer to detect. Many of the symptoms, such as coughing, difficulty swallowing (dysphagia), and indigestion are thought to be acid reflux. Diarrhea is not a symptom. Esophageal cancer may start as tightness in the throat or pain in the chest. Recurring hiccups, hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, or regurgitating food and weight loss, could be symptoms of cancer of the esophagus.
The next several months are a blur of driving back and forth to Cleveland, appointments with medical doctors at the V.A. Hospital, admissions to the hospital and time Denise spent with Terry while hospitalized. Denise observed many issues of inadequate care during these hospital stays, including lab work lost, stool samples lost, and she began to question the professionalism and efficiency of the hospital setting.
On other occasions, Denise became so frustrated, she decided to become the advocate for her husband’s medical care. She took notes, asked questions, and documented everything. She educated herself to the terminology of the V.A. professionals, along with the terms of ‘Risk Manager,’ ‘V.A. Property,’ and ‘Summary Letters’. These descriptions and documents would benefit her after Terry’s death.
For two years, Terry was treated at V.A. hospitals, treated more like a pin cushion that a person. For two years, Terry had confidence in the V.A. hospitals and their care, expressing repeatedly to his wife, “I am a Veteran. They promised me they would be there for me.” As he weakened, he still believed while his body was tested, probed, and tested and probed repeatedly, like cattle headed to pasture, he would get better and the V.A. would ‘take care of him.’
QUALITY CARE – NOT EXACTLY
In October 2000, Terry’s weight had dropped to a skeletal frame of 70 pounds. A few of his V.A. doctors referred to his diagnosis as ‘psychosomatic,’ as described in a letter by a Risk Manager. Apparently the doctors were clueless to the fact that Terry had an unexplained weight lost of 158 pounds since March 1998. Quality of care – not exactly. Confident the V.A. would care for him properly, Terry visited with the V.A. doctors on October 5, 2000. According to Denise, the doctors were hopeful they could help Terry, and there were no signs of cancer. This was his last visit with V.A. doctors.
HIS FINAL BATTLE
On October 8, 2000, finding her husband lifeless in bed, his body and sheets soaking with perspiration, his body cold to the touch, Denise phoned 911 and the V.A. hospital. She had Terry transported to a hospital only 25 miles away. The V.A. hospital was aware of this and said it was ‘OK.’ Terry was extremely weak, incoherent of what was happening and he failed to recognize his son. Arriving at ER, Denise was questioned by the doctors as to the deteriorating condition of her husband. She explained that he had been receiving medical care at the V.A. Hospital and was under their care. More tests were performed. Denise was told to call all family members because Terry might not make it through the night.
Admitted to ICU, the weakened shell of Terry fought to survive. The prognosis of a total mass of cancer was discovered and nothing could be done for him. Terry was terminally ill and near death. He wanted to go home to die. His response to his children about the terminal diagnosis was shocking when he looked into his son’s eyes and said, “See. I am not crazy. There really was something wrong with me.” Placed in a wheelchair, Terry was discharged from the hospital. His last wishes were to be in the sunshine, and he had three final requests. One was to keep ‘Ole Red’ his 1990 red pickup truck.
His second request to Denise was for her to find someone who would be good to her and to move on with her life. His final, most compelling request was to fight the V.A. and to make them accountable for what they had allowed his family to tolerate. “Don’t give up,” he whispered. “Help other Veterans.” Before his death, Terry requested Denise to do all she could to help other veterans from experiencing this type of care. “Speak Out,” he said. Seven days later, on October 15, 2000, Terry lost his battle and died.
NO TIME TO GRIEVE
At a time when most people take the time to grieve over the loss of a loved one or spouse, Denise Soles was forced to take on a new mission. Never did she have the time to grieve because she had to keep the battle for benefits active. Death was a new battle and the fight of her life as she fought for widow’s benefits. She took it upon herself to file complaints, documenting the inappropriate care and lack of follow up with Terry’s medical diagnosis and care at the V.A Hospital.
She received Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, appropriately listed under the acronym of [DIC], based on the ‘inappropriate care with lack of follow up.’ For three years, she filed, complained, and made enough noise to get her widow’s benefits; however, there were stipulations that left her feeling betrayed. The benefits would continue until her death, or remarriage.
Knowing she had collected enough documentation to make her case, she sued the V.A. in Federal Court, and after fighting, an additional battle filled with five years of delays, she won her case concerning the medical neglect pertaining to ‘the inappropriate care with lack of follow up,’ for her deceased husband and Veteran Terry Soles. A gag order was attached to the settlement so she is limited to what she can reveal about the case and monetary settlement. When Later, the V.A. cancelled her DIC check they demanded her to send them $7000 in overpayment. For nine years, Denise continues the battle.
Denise tells this portion of her story best, “When I won the [FTC] Federal Torte Claim, the V.A. continued sending my DIC checks, from March 06 thru Sept 06. Each month I called the 1-800 # for the V.A. just to make certain I was getting this check correctly; and each month I was told ”Yes, the V.A. will discontinue it when and if they want to.” So in September 2006, I received DIC, and in September 2006, I got a letter stating I owed the V.A. the $7,000+ for overpayment of DIC benefits. The V.A. has taken my Dependency and Indemnity Compensation from me, calling it an ”offset”, until my share of my Federal Torte Claim is paid back to them in full.
I cannot understand how the V.A. feels they paid me anything for Terry’s death, and the V.A.’s admittance to their ”inappropriate care with lack of follow up,” when actually all they did was give me a lump sum of my DIC. In all reality, they actually paid me nothing of the FTC for ”wrongful death”. So my appeal with the V.A. is my ”offset” of the DIC, and also the ”overpayment” of my DIC, when in reality I did not create the debt, the V.A. created it by sending me the check each month.” While this may appear a bit confusing, Denise’s comments about her experiences are perfect examples of how the V.A. handles phone calls and issues. Consistency does not appear to exist within the V.A. system.
In 2004 Diane Sawyer and “Primetime” broadcast the story of Terry Soles. Scheduled to speak was V.A. Secretary Anthony Principi. Unfortunately, on the scheduled date of the interview, Principi was sick and did not appear on the show.
When the discovery of hidden camera footage was made, revealing code violations and mismanagement, the interview with Principi was canceled. Deputy Undersecretary for Health Dr. Jonathan Perlin said the V.A. was a big system. “We take care of 7 million veterans, and sometimes, bad things happen.”
Bad things – like the lack of proper medical care for Terry Soles. The lack of medical treatment, and the lack of proper diagnosis. How many more veterans slip thru the cracks, herded like cattle to pasture, or elsewhere – is truly the question.
Now, Denise Soles fights government bureaucracy and officials, receiving little response if any. She remembers the words Terry whispered to her while he was at death’s door, “Speak Out. Don’t let this happen to another veteran.”
MOVING INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
Denise is determined to do all she can to help veterans and their families. Will the practice of herding the veterans, like cattle headed to pasture, or elsewhere continue? Exactly what will it take to make the officials, Congress, and the Legislators who make all the bills, approve the budgets and recognize the V.A. has a major problem. It appears that the V.A. would like the Veterans, their families and spouses, to walk softly into the night and not make any noise.
Perhaps that is where Denise Soles and I truly resemble our missions in life. I believe in the power of the media, freedom of speech, and shouting to the rooftops so my voice can be heard. Like Denise Soles I ask questions. Once when I was at the V.A. Hospital in Charleston, SC a doctor was a little too quick to write a prescription for my husband, instead of listening to his complaints. Furious, I stated firmly, “It appears the V.A. has a drug for everything, doesn’t it?” The doctor glared at me, snickered, and replied, “Pretty much.” She handed the prescription to my husband and left. So much for quality care.
I believe in not taking no for an answer. My husband’s battle with the V.A. continues. His file has been “sitting on a desk in Washington since March 1998.” Each time he phones the V.A. he speaks to a different person and is required to explain the scenario over and over again – like cattle herded to pasture. No accountability. No responsibility, and no decisions are made.
Denise Soles believes passionately in her mission to SPEAK OUT. Widows and widowers, please unite with Denise to ‘make the V.A. accountable’ for what they allowed to happen to Terry Soles, and others. SPEAK OUT so America will recognize our V.A. needs to move into the Twenty-first Century and we need to care for our Veterans in an appropriate, effective manner.
President Obama has said: “We have a sacred trust with those who wear the uniform of the United States of America, a commitment that begins with enlistment and must never end.” Let us hope these promises will take effect soon, before it is too late for our Veterans and their families.
On October 22, 2009 President Barack Obama signed the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act into law. Supposedly, this law will be known as ‘advanced funding.’ Veterans, Widows and Widowers are hopeful this will move the V.A. into a more efficient, effective and professional mode. Our Veterans deserve better and so do the wives, family members and widows, widowers. Let us all unite to SPEAK OUT while shouting to the rooftops for the V.A. to stop treating our beloved as pin cushions, or herds of cattle headed to the unknown
Visit Denise Soles blog, http://veteranswidowsfight.blogstream.com/ for additional updates.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Barbie Perkins-Cooper is an awarding winning writer who loves the journey and exploration of travel and health. She is the proud wife of a Vietnam Veteran and works full-time as an editorial photojournalist. She has published numerous articles and photographs for regional, health and beauty and travel publications including the Travel Channel and Buick Magazine. She volunteers as a PR rep for non-profit organizations, including Veterans-for-Change, and she is the editor of Mail Call for Glenn L. Jeffers VFW. Barbie resides in Charleston, South Carolina with her husband, Phil and three precious pups. She is the author of Condition of Limbo and Career Diary of a Photographer. Visit her website www.barbieperkinscooper.com
http://veteranswidowsfight.blogstream.com/v1/pid/327194.html, Veteran’s Widow Fight
http://www.veteranstoday.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=2818, Navy Widow Punished by the Veterans Administration
Jim Davis is the son of USMC MGySgt. Lesley Davis (Ret.) who passed away on April 24, 2006, from ALS caused by Agent Orange. His dad’s mission before he passed on was to ensure all veterans, spouses, children, and widows all received the benefits, medical care and attention, and proper facilities from the VA.
Because of the promise made to his dad to carry on the mission, in May 2006 Davis began as a one-man show sending out 535 letters every single week to all members of Congress requesting and politely demanding the fulfill their promises made over the past decades to care for life those who wore the uniform and their families.
Veterans-For-Change was born in August 2006 with a very small membership of 25 people composed of veterans, spouses, widows, family members, and friends and to date continues to grow.