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.

Download Audio

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 $1,000 a month through social security insurance and public assistance. Most of that goes to renting the poorly insulated cabin, along with other bills. The stove is torn apart — and even if it wasn’t, there’s not enough counter-space for him to cook.

The small kitchen in Scott's cabin. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.
The small kitchen in Scott’s cabin. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.

“At this point I’m living on nothing. I have no hope, I have no future. I’ve called the suicide hotline just to have someone to talk to because sometimes I just go nuts,” he said.

Between the pain and the poverty he almost never leaves the cabin. One of the only people he has any kind of relationship with is Dianne Williams.

“He’s not physically able to get stuff done,” Williams said during an interview inside the small, well-appointed Knik Museum, which she curates.

Williams knew Harrison’s older brother 20 years ago. Like all of Harrison’s immediate family, he’s since died.

Williams reached out to help after seeing Harrison’s name in a newspaper article about the VA testimony, and the two reconnected.

“He doesn’t even seem like the same person,” Williams said, recalling the quick-witted, eager young man she first met. “And that’s sad. I mean he’s not that old yet, he should still have life ahead of him. More than what he’s got now.”

Williams knows a little bit about navigating the VA system because she went through it with her husband before he passed away. When we spoke in November she estimated she spent up to 30 hours a week helping Harrison by bringing by food, driving him to medical appointments, or calling social services for him. Even as we’re talking she has to take breaks to coordinate a pick-up for Harrison’s service dog.

“He is not getting the care he needs,” Williams said, punching the buttons on her flip-phone periodically. “It’s like a full time job doing this, I swear to God.”

Williams doesn’t think many solutions will come from the VA. Her hope is to get Harrison into a better house — one where he has more room, can cook for himself, and see a little more of the outside world.

All of that depends on unlocking the funds Scott would be entitled to if he can show that his current health crisis is due to his back injury during his Marine days, or if he can demonstrate that his disability is the result of mistakes in VA administered care. But according to Harrison, that process can’t even get off the ground, because the VA can’t get him a copy of his service records.

In the second part of this story, we examine the reasons why.