Guest: Gretchen Martens
Guest Bio: Gretchen Martens affectionately known as the veteran lady. She is widely respected for her knowledge of state military transition issues and innovative community base solutions to support our young military who are coming home. She is the author of untying the yellow ribbon transforming how veterans and communities thrive. In addition, she is the co-founder of the east texas veterans alliance and founder of homeward deployed.
Gretchen Martens talks about the lack of trust in VA Hospitals among US veterans.
Health Professional Radio
Neal Howard: Hello you’re listening to Health Professional Radio. I’m your host Neal Howard. Our guest in studio today is Gretchen Martens who is affectionately known as the “Veteran Lady.” She is widely respected for her knowledge of today’s military transition issues and innovative community base solutions to support our young military who are coming home. She is also the author of “Untying the Yellow Ribbon: Transforming How Veterans and Communities Thrive.” How are you doing today Gretchen?
Gretchen Martens: Very well. How are you Neal?
N: I’m doing fine. Thank you so much for allowing us some of your time for today. We’ve been talking about the VA scandal in the United States. Many of our veterans are waiting astronomically long periods of time just to be classified as to what type of care they’re entitled to. In Phoenix Arizona we discovered that there were many veterans who actually died simply waiting on care at VA facilities. Now you’re versed in helping our veterans to transition from the military life back into civilian life. And one of the main concerns always is healthcare. You’re coming out of a war zone there are injuries, there’s PTSD, depression, all sorts of things that are going on and especially with the military being a Coed force that tends to complicate things, I’m sure.
G: Yes, it does. And are you talking about Coed in terms of countries, also cooperating with each other to put on wars?
N: Well I’m talking about the fact that we’re dealing with severe injury, we’re dealing with severe mental stress and women are different from men, their health issues are different. If the waiting period is long enough to cause death in men, imagine some of the issues that women are facing coming back? I mean with childcare or with pregnancy or any number of things that men just don’t have to deal with, that are serious issues for women.
G: Well, and one of the biggest issues that we’re seeing with women and something that is very difficult for many people to talk about is military sexual trauma. And you may have heard about the just epidemic of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and military rape. And this is women being raped by their peers while they’re deployed and we see a very high incident of people who are seeking care, women seeking care in the VA who are victims of military sexual trauma that many of them will not seek care at the VA because they’ve already been so victimized by the military system that they are part of, that there’s no trust left. So you’re absolutely correct that the issues facing our women veterans and our male veterans are very, very different often times.
N: As the VA is scrambling to address this issue, in your opinion do you think that some of the issues that have been facing women for a long time that have gone unaddressed will finally take a front burner as it were, on the list of priorities?
G: I think we’re starting to see that. And that is the place where I do give General Shinseki credit is five years ago when he first to covered the VA, he really took on quite aggressively the issues of female veterans. I mean back then many VA hospitals didn’t even have separate changing rooms for women. So imagine being a victim of military rape, and having to go in for an exam and having to change in the same room that men changed in. And so I think this is the first time that we’ve seen a substantial number of women serving in the military. So in a way it makes sense that we don’t have adequate facilities for women and we don’t understand women’s health issues, the differences and how it combat affects men versus how it affects women. As well as some of the women’s specific issues mentioned like pregnancy and child welfare and those sort of issues. So I think we have a lot of work to do to really bring the standard of care for women in the VA system to be equal to that of men.
N: All right. In the previous segment, I heard you mention Agent Orange briefly as an issue that is returning. Many of our Vietnam vets who didn’t receive benefits upon returning home from Vietnam back in the late 60’s, early 70’s, are now returning because Agent Orange has been reclassified as service related. Is that something that you feel happen with Gulf War syndrome? I can remember back in the middle of the Gulf War when soldiers were coming home complaining of certain nervous system illnesses and flu like symptoms. The government astonishingly denied anything known as Gulf War Syndrome, anything like that. Now it is something that is being addressed. Do you find that’s something that takes place with the VA over period of years, they decide to address an illness?
G: I think you’re absolutely right that when it comes with additional research, we say now. And I remember the days when the … Syndrome was basically framed as an issue of veterans trying to benefit or trying to make excuses for why they weren’t transitioning well. And now as you get more medical studies and research study, we started to see that there was something to that. They’ve ruled a lot of things out as to what haven’t caused it. We still don’t really understand what does cause it but yet with Gulf War Syndrome, we recognize it now as a syndrome. So with Agent Orange, there were problems that came up over years and years so it was things like Parkinson’s, and diabetes, and I’m trying to think if that was Alzheimer’s, that studies showed over time that having been exposed to Agent Orange was causing medical issues and that could be in a valid scientifically demonstrated way tied back to somebody’s service in Vietnam. So now part of what we see happening at the VA is our generation of Vietnam veterans are coming back for benefits that 39 years ago when we pulled out of Saigon, they weren’t eligible for. Now they’re eligible and as medical science advances, we see that even going back to our World War II veterans that similar process happened around mustard gas. And so about 20 years ago my uncle who is a World War II veteran ended up being eligible for benefits actually after he died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease because that was tied the mustard gas exposure and my nephew found out about that and applied for benefits. So when we keep rolling things like that back and forward, it further complicates I think that the planning and administration of the VA because in a way they never know what’s coming at them.
N: There are so many differences between the Veterans Administration, Healthcare System and Private Medicine, yet there are many similarities. Why do you think it is that the Veterans Administration didn’t look to private practice or private industry to get some ideas or to see how maybe different hospitals or different hospitals chains were handling their backlog or the huge amount of patients that they were seeing?
G: I think that there are at least two reasons for that. One when you look at the private pay hospital systems and the big systems like a Humana. Their CEO is paid $17, $25, $30 millions a year so there executive are very well paid. They’re able to get the best of the best to manage those hospitals and they often have the degrees in health care management or their MBA’s. Within our government system and I guess this is sort of a dark answer (chuckles) but I don’t think that leadership in our federal government always attracts the accomplished people. I mean I don’t know a nicer way to say that. When you look at the salary disparity between what the CEO of Humana earns and you know what I would guess that Secretary Shinseki earned, that’s a huge gap. And so that creates a barrier in getting truly exceptional leadership for something like the head of the VA hospital. You look at now they’re talking about, I think his first name is Delos Cosgrove who run the Cleveland clinic. Well that’s a $7B facility the VA is a $164B system. So it’s a huge system who’s leadership is very underfunded and then there’s this issue of well in order to run the VA, you have to be a veteran. Well what the VA needs right now is someone who is an exceptional manager of healthcare system.
G: Not someone who’s a veteran, those aren’t. It’s not because you’re a veteran, doesn’t mean you inherently know how to run a $164 billion healthcare system with something like 350 facilities and hundreds of thousands of employees.
N: What would you say to healthcare professionals who are not connected to the Veterans Administration, who may find themselves dealing with many veterans due to the fact that there’s a lack of trust as you said among women, among service members worldwide or nationwide? What would you say to people that are going to now be dealing with veterans with PTSD, with severe injuries, who were looking to the VA for their care, who are now going to have deal with people who are not veterans and who don’t deal with the military at all?
G: Well this is really one of the foundations of my book is that people in communities can make a huge difference. So when you look at doctors, and nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, please go and learn about military issues, veteran issues so that you’re more well versed in what that veteran or his or her family member bringing them in is talking about. So that you can more adequately treat them and I know it puts a burden on physicians at mainstream but there’s a place where every physician and physician’s assistant, the nurse, that whole range of people were to make that effort, it would really improve the quality of care for these young men and women and their families coming home, and that would be meaningful change. Because realistically, it’s gonna take years to get the VA to where it’s functioning effectively. So if we don’t want these guys and girls to do without care, it’s on all of us to have to step up and do just a little bit more to try to support them.
N: You’ve been listening to Health Professional Radio. I’m your host Neal Howard. We’ve been in studio today talking with Gretchen Martens aka the “Veteran Lady” who’s very knowledgeable in how our military members transition from military service back to civilian life. She’s also the author of “Untying the Yellow Ribbon: Transforming How Veterans and Communities Thrive” and also a children’s curriculum known as “Veterans Studies Weekly.” And in addition, she’s the founder of Homeward Deployed and the cofounder of the East Texas Veterans Alliance. We’ve been here talking today about some of the issues within the Veterans Administration and how some of these issues can be addressed and really should be addressed in order to regain a level of trust among our veterans that seems to be waiting at this particular time. It’s been great having you’re here with us today Gretchen.
G: I appreciate your time and your attention on issues affecting our veterans Neal.
N: Transcript of this program are available at hpr.fm and also at healthprofessionalradio.com.au.