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Commentary: Here there be dragons

Where I came from, there was just one bus, and it traveled just one road: a nice, straight line into the city, a good half-hour to the north. Back then, I rode it every chance I got.

The other end of the line was much closer to home — 10 minutes, tops — but it might as well have been off the edge of the world. I didn’t know the phrase back then, but I did know the feeling: HC SVNT DRACONES. Here there be dragons.

The other end of the line was the VA hospital. And one of my greatest fears was that I would fall asleep, miss my stop and wind up there, right along with the cackling old man who always took the seat behind the bus driver.

Now, I had nothing against veterans. Most dads in town, my own included, were veterans, along with most of the uncles, a few of the brothers and cousins and even the occasional mom. My dad in particular was a decorated war hero out of the Army Air Corps under Patton, though honestly, he took no great pride in it. He locked his Purple Heart in a drawer and if he ever spoke of it, it wasn’t to me.

Still, he was proud of his service, if not his wounds. We said the pledge, we flew the flag, we prayed and wore red paper poppies on Memorial Day.

But as far as I could tell, once Dad mustered out, he never set foot in a VA hospital. Neither did any of the other dads, uncles, brothers, etc. Working men with jobs and decent insurance plans, they had better options. Mention the VA hospital and you would see them wince.

Me, I was there twice: once on a dare, once on a school mission. And God bless the doctors and the nurses and the orderlies, who hustled and seemed to care about what they were doing, but between the screams, the smells, the frustration and the evidence of pain at every turn — let’s just say the VA hospital of my childhood was no place a child should see. More like a building-sized closet full of bogeymen, all strung out on drugs or begging to be, a hazard to the soul.

That particular VA hospital closed a few years ago, but not before a public debate over whether it was doing more harm than good.

That’s a question that’s being asked a lot this Memorial Day, with the admission by the Department of Veterans Affairs of 23 deaths due to delays in treatment; with administrators in Phoenix accused of cooking the books to hide the problem; with an investigative report by the Dayton Daily News finding 167 instances of “delay in treatment” cited in the records of VA settlements dating back to 2001.

To be sure, hospitals have come a long way in the last 40 years, and VA hospitals are no exception. With 85 million patients a year now, there are bound to be some mistakes.

But that news out of Washington and Phoenix and Dayton is tragic, and not just for those cackling souls taking the bus to the wrong end of the line. It’s tragic for all the people who never set foot in a VA hospital and hoped they never would, but knew they could if they needed to.

The VA hospital may have been a last resort, but it was there. It was a home for wounded warriors in the sense of the Robert Frost poem: the place where, when you had to go there, they had to take you in.

Or so we thought, back then.

It turns out, not everyone gets by the dragons.

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