VA health care has a spotty reputation in 21st century America, but it’s still a unique and powerful force for military veterans. Our “Embrace the Suck” columnist examines his own experiences with the VA over the years.

Don’t Believe Everything You’ve Heard About VA Care

For the last decade or so, a few times a year I’ve hopped on the R train and headed south, south, south. Past the hipster villages of North Brooklyn, past big, sprawling Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery, even past the Little Hong Kong that’s built up in recent times. My destination’s been off the very last stop, 95th Street, in the neighborhood of Bay Ridge, a part of Brooklyn that’s not a tourist destination or a human zoo. It’s a conservative enclave in deep-blue New York, featuring a smattering of pizza parlors and Irish pubs nestled around residential streets, and it’s where the Brooklyn VA Medical Center resides.

When I first came home from Iraq, I told my family the VA wasn’t for me. It was for veterans who needed it. My mom nodded and smiled, then ordered me into the car to drive down to the local facility to enroll. It was a humbling moment for a young man fresh from combat and rather full of himself, but, well, she’s my mama, so I did it. I’d earned those benefits, was her reasoning, and she’d seen too many friends of hers come home from Vietnam and wait on utilizing specialized care that understood the unique circumstances of postwar life. And as any veterans advocate will tell you, helping treat vets early, instead of late, changes so much.

So I’ve made the trip to Bay Ridge for regular physicals, mental health counseling and flu shots. I went in 2016 when I was so stressed out about my first novel coming out that I somehow got shingles at the ripe old age of 33. This goes against the public narrative, I know, but I’ve always found the care there very good and professional. Maybe it’s exposure, but even the gruff New Yorkers working as operators have grown on me over the years.

Like many VA facilities in the Northeast and urban areas, the Brooklyn VA Medical Center is excellent. It regularly scores five out of five stars on the internal—and publicly disclosed—VA ratings system. Attracting health care talent to the area isn’t the issue it can be elsewhere in the country. And while the system can have its moments—most recently dealing with a surge of COVID-19 patients in that dark spring of 2020—having nearby facilities in Manhattan, the Bronx and Long Island keeps the Brooklyn facility from demand overflow, despite Vietnam-era veterans reaching retirement age and the endless drip-drip-drip of Global War on Terror veterans arriving for 20 years now.

I saw a vet there recently, who was younger than me. It was a shock. He looked like a damn kid.

My family and I recently made the decision to move, so we’re leaving Brooklyn. Maybe only for a couple years, maybe forever. Life’s hard to predict, as we all know. Still, when I made my last trip to the Brooklyn VA for the COVID vaccine, I was well aware it may’ve been my final trip there. Not to be sentimental or anything, but I’ve always found the subway journey there enjoyable. I read, people-watch, see different parts of NYC in all its disparate, mosaic glory. The view of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge on the walk from the subway exit to the VA is one of my favorites, especially on a clear day. This trip has seen me through a lot of life changes: books, marriage, dogs, two sons and five apartments. The VA’s been a consistency for me through all that.

Anyhow. Sometimes my civilian friends ask what a VA is like, and while I usually I respond with “you know, it’s a medical place, just with cranky vets,” I’m not sure that’s all that descriptive. It’s a weird, little ecosystem, with rules and mores all its own. Someone like me, who only goes a few times a year, is but a traveler. As the old men who hang out by the bus stop out front will tell you without prompting, they’re there damn near every day, getting what they’re owed.

There’s a metal detector at the front and federal police types who have heard it all. Show ’em your VA ID, and you’re in. The info desk in the main lobby has the answers for which you seek; the VA is a government facility, after all, which means everything is a maze. When I need to visit a specialist or a shrink, I hang a left for the elevators, which lay past the ER, but on the day of my most recent visit, the COVID vaccines are set up in the first-floor pod. It’s all straightforward and efficient enough; the nurse confirms I am me, and then I’m in with the doc who administers the shot.

The real fun happens in the waiting room, where I sit with 30 other veterans to see whether or not the vaccine is gonna turn us into robot soldiers for Bill Gates. There are a lot of wisecracks, and an older vet wonders how the vaccine isn’t mandatory for active-duty servicemembers.

“They never asked when we was in. They just stuck us up,” he says, earning nods of agreement from around the waiting room.

A nurse tells another of the older veterans his 15 minutes have passed, and that as long as he isn’t feeling any dizziness, he’s free to go.

“Go where?” the man asks, in that deadpan way of an old soldier. “My ride ain’t here for two more hours!”

Something about the man’s delivery and his acceptance of his circumstances brought the house down. Everyone began laughing, not at the man but with him. Even the nurse cracked a small grin, eventually.

Getting home always takes longer than it should, I suppose.

Matt Gallagher is a U.S. Army veteran and the author of three books, including the novel Empire City.

Do remember that one can embrace all sorts of suck by looking into Matt’s entire contribution to our awareness. Hey, you have to embrace something in life, or you’ll just end up a sad, sad person.

Have Something to Add?