YORK — My husband and I are Vietnam veterans. We were both stationed on Long Binh, then the Army’s biggest post outside the United States. He was a medical evacuation helicopter pilot, bringing wounded soldiers to the 24th Evacuation Hospital, where I was a nurse.

Our paths crossed many times, but we did not meet until we were at Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he was recovering from gunshot wounds to both legs. His injuries were severe enough to earn him a disability retirement from the Army. We had good health insurance and easy access to good care in Ohio and New Hampshire. We didn’t need the VA.

When we moved to York in 1979, we knew little about the VA system in Maine other than the hospital’s unusual name: “Togus.” We received our health care elsewhere. We still didn’t need the VA.

That changed in 2012, when I saw an in-depth WCSH story on what is now called military sexual trauma. When I was in officer’s basic training in 1969, I was almost raped. Although I was not physically injured, I suffered with the psychological trauma for years.

I now know I have mild post-traumatic stress disorder, but when the near-rape happened, no one believed it was possible for people to develop this yet-to-be-named disorder without having been in combat. Instead, I learned to cope on my own, and now am fearful only if I am walking outside alone at night.

I still didn’t think I needed the VA, but when WCSH reported in 2012 that the Veterans Affairs Maine Healthcare System was the national leader in helping people with military sexual trauma, I contacted the MST hotline, and I was routinely admitted into the VA system.


I have a primary care physician in Portland whom I like very much. For several months I also saw a therapist, who helped me learn new coping mechanisms and renew the skills I already had to deal with the anxiety caused by military sexual trauma. She also verified that I, indeed, have PTSD.

In 2014, Army nurse friends encouraged me to join the military’s Agent Orange Registry, which tracks illnesses in people known to have had considerable exposure to dioxin in Vietnam. I had lived less than 500 yards from a dioxin dump for a year, and several friends already had a variety of health issues thought to be associated with Agent Orange exposure, including cancer and Parkinsonism. I wanted to join the registry. That meant I had to go to Togus.

My first visit was on a gorgeous fall afternoon. I was amazed by the campus’ beauty. Yes, some of the buildings were industrial ugly. But the people with whom I had contact were both kind and knowledgeable.

This year, I went back to Togus to have my hearing tested. I was waiting to get my new hearing aids when a robot carrying records passed through the hallway. So much for this being a backward-thinking hospital!

That afternoon, I sat in the audiologist’s office while she programmed my hearing aids. On one of her walls she had posted a picture of Travis Mills, a Maine Army veteran who lost all four limbs when an improvised explosive device detonated under him in Afghanistan.

That’s when the importance of the VA really hit me – I was staggered when I realized the number of people who now need, and will continue to need, the specialized medical care for those who have been to war.

There are over 3 million aging Vietnam veterans in the U.S., many of whom have health care needs directly related to being in Vietnam, whether from wounds, PTSD or Agent Orange exposure. Add to that the statistics for veterans of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, where approximately 2.1 million members of our armed forces have served (including multiple tours).

According to a 2015 Congressional Research Service report, 52,054 men and women have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over 138,000 service members have been treated for PTSD, 328,000 have had traumatic brain injuries and 1,645 have lost at least one limb. They will need excellent specialized health care for the rest of their lives. Those who have served to preserve and protect our country deserve nothing less. And for that, we will need well-educated people working in well-funded VA hospitals.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: