Casualty of care: Ex-Marine grapples with VA system

The Department of Veterans Affairs in Alaska has made healthy strides in improving care over the last few years. But some patients still fall through the cracks. In the first of a two-part story, an ex-Marine explains his difficulties navigating care and benefits through the VA, and the effect its had on his life.

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Scott Harrison spends most of each day on a hospital bed that stopped working after a water-leak this fall shorted it out. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.
Scott Harrison spends most of each day on a hospital bed in his cabin that stopped working after a water-leak shorted it out. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.

Back in August, Scott Harrison was one of dozens of veterans at a listening session with VA Secretary Bob McDonald. Speaking from a microphone set up on the green astroturf of an indoor soccer-field, Harrison spoke candidly about the scale of misfortune he’s faced in his life, much of it stemming from problems accessing his be benefits through the VA in Alaska, he said.

“I’ve got six years of absolute proof positive of the crap that’s gone on,” Harrison said, referring to phone-calls he’d started recording with VA staff. The conversations, he explained, contain misinformation and insensitivities he felt added insult to injury.

“I’ve lost my home, I’ve had so many surgeries I can barely walk,” Harrison told McDonald. “From standing in this line for 30 minutes I will go home tonight, I will lay in bed for two or three days with pillows between my legs because of all the spinal fusions and damage I have.”

Dozens of people lined up during Thursday's listening session to speak on concerns and experiences with the VA. Though overwhelmingly critical, many laid out positive experiences receiving care in Alaska. (Photo: Jillian Rogers)
Dozens of people lined up during the August listening session to speak on concerns and experiences with the VA. Though overwhelmingly critical, many laid out positive experiences receiving care in Alaska. Photo: Jillian Rogers, KHNS

I followed up with Harrison after first hearing him speak. I wanted to figure out how things could go so wrong…. whether the VA was to blame, or whether Harrison engendered his own hardships somehow.

In September, Harrison sat cross-legged on the broken hospital bed where he spends most of each day inside a cramped, cluttered one-room cabin he rents off a side-road in Big Lake. Every few minutes he’d adjust his posture with a slight grimace.

“I just gotta move a bunch of times, sorry,” he said. “It’s just the nerve damage.”

In between rolling cigarettes, Harrison lifted his shirt to explain scars from different surgeries.

After three years of service in the Marine Corps, Harrison said his leg began freezing up. He’d fall to the ground, unable to get back up. It would sometimes happen multiple times a day. By his 40s it was severe.

Harrison believes the leg issue is related to an old back injury that happened while he was constructing gun bunkers with the Marines in the early 1980s. There was a problem with the equipment, and Scott fell several stories down to the bottom of a pit.

He remembers getting medical treatment for that particular injury. It was one of the few times he sought care. Usually he’d just grit his teeth and tough it out.

“You’re supposed to be Marine-tough,” Harrison said of the mentality at the time. Summing it up, he added, “‘You’ve got arterial blood spraying? Here’s a band-aid, take an aspirin.'”

By 2007, doctors told him he needed urgent medical care, but he couldn’t get appointments at the VA’s regional office in Anchorage. This was the same period marking the height of dysfunction for the VA in Alaska before they launched a series of successful reforms. A 2011 Inspector General’s audit of 16 VA offices across the country ranked the Anchorage Regional office as tied for last in standards of care.

The 2011 Office of the Inspector General's report "Systemic Issues Reported During Inspections at VA Regional Offices" found the Anchorage Regional Office out of compliance in 13 of 14 categories of care.
Click to enlarge. The 2011 Office of the Inspector General’s report “Systemic Issues Reported During Inspections at VA Regional Offices” found the Anchorage Regional Office out of compliance in 13 of 14 categories of care.

Meanwhile, Harrison’s health declined, and he was fighting a messy property dispute in court. He cut back on work, selling off equipment and possessions to stay afloat financially.

By 2013, the VA had him scheduled for a surgery to fix cervical disks in his neck, and the plan was to follow that up with a spinal fusion. Harrison had just enough money saved to make it through recuperation.

“Well, that’s when we had the government shutdown,” he said.

That delayed his next operation. But he still couldn’t work, and the eight-month period between surgeries wiped him out financially. Court records from February 2014, just a few weeks after his spinal fusion, show him facing eviction. And by then there was another backlog in healthcare appointments at the VA facility. It would 10 months before he started physical therapy.

“Basically, I just laid on a bed in here,” Harrison gestured to the dimly lit room, about the size of a tool-shed. “I had to be taken out by ambulance several times because my muscles would just cramp and lock, and I couldn’t even physically get out of the bed.”

Harrison is more mobile now. But he’s stuck. He survives on about