One vet’s recovery

Written by Eric on June 13, 2014 in: Uncategorized |

            Mike Orban isn’t a journalist writing about other people’s experiences. Instead, he’s a ’Nam vet who never really recovered from losing his soul in combat. And his book, Souled Out, examines his years of pain with searing detail and unflinching honesty.

Mike writes about his year-long fight in 1971 to stay alive on the killing fields of Tay Ninh Province in the Central Highlands, with every sense on high alert to protect him from ever-present danger. He writes about how empty it made him feel when he realized there was no legitimate purpose to his mission, that he was merely killing others so they wouldn’t kill him. And he writes about the anger he felt toward the Washington bureaucrats who so needlessly sacrificed the lives of young American soldiers that they deemed expendable.

But unlike so many war books, this part is designed merely to give us a taste of what Mike went through. Most of Souled Out is about the aftermath of war and how he no longer fit in.

Mike compares himself to an abandoned house with a leaking roof, sagging floors, dirt-smeared windows and rotting furniture on the inside, but with a fresh coat of paint on the outside. All his energy for the next five years went to keeping up that façade.

But it wasn’t until 1976 when he volunteered to go to Africa with the Peace Corps that he noticed a huge positive change. Part of it was the beauty of the jungles of PC Gabon, and part of it was living among rural natives so close to nature. But finally he realized that he simply needed to help others to make up for the harm he had inflicted in combat. It felt so good that after three years in Gabon, he joined USAID for another two years in Cameroon.

Returning to America in 1980, he began a long slide downward, working just enough to pay for food and alcohol as he scrounged off his brothers and sisters and as he did his best to avoid facing the major problems in his life.

At the end of that long road, Mike faced a grim choice: suicide or recovery. And recovery meant facing the demons that he had worked so hard to avoid. But in 2001, he committed himself to a 90-day inpatient PTSD program at the VA hospital in Tomah, Wis., to begin that process.

Writing became part of his painful examination because writing requires honesty and because once those words are on paper, they can’t be ignored. So writing became an important part of Mike’s therapy.

Souled Out is one vet’s story, but it’s designed to educate other vets and their families so they don’t feel alone with their guilt, their depression, their sorrow and their rage. Showing how one vet achieved an inner peace gives a game plan for others to be able to duplicate it. So writing became another part of Mike’s therapy.

Finally, writing a book forces the author to promote it. That means speaking before civic groups, vets’ organizations and virtually anyone else willing to listen. Again, that’s therapeutic for a vet accustomed to isolating himself.

In some respects, Souled Out is just one of many books detailing the odyssey of a warrior coming home from war. But it’s much more than that because at the end of the day, Mike summoned up the courage, energy and resolve to fix the roof and the floor, pitch out the rotting furniture, clean the place up and slap a fresh coat of paint on the walls so he can live again in that once-abandoned house.

Like every restored home, there are always new problems and fresh additions to the maintenance list. But there’s a real joy in seeing fresh life in this house … and this author.

Over the course of a year, many books roll across my desk. But Souled Out has a permanent place on my personal bookshelf. It’s available at or at You can also call 262-247-2456 for signed copies, volume sales or info on PTSD.




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VA issues its own damning report

Written by Eric on June 10, 2014 in: Uncategorized |

The VA released its own damning report this week about wait times for veterans to get appointments at their hospitals and clinics. It pretty much confirms what most of us have seen in practice. But most vets have a highly skeptical view of government reports — particularly VA reports – so it’s good that acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has also ordered an independent, external audit of the scandal.

It will be interesting to see whether the situation worsens when outside auditors examine the VA health care system. But frankly, it’s hard to believe the system could be any worse than the VA has acknowledged.

According to the VA’s inspector general, 100,000 vets are experiencing excessive wait times for current medical appointments, and many others have fallen through the cracks without having been scheduled for appointments.

“On May 15, 2014, VHA had over 6 million appointments scheduled across the system,” according to the audit. “Nationwide, there are roughly 57,436 veterans who are waiting to be scheduled for care and another 63,869 who over the past 10 years have enrolled in our healthcare system and have not been seen for an appointment. VA is moving aggressively to contact these veterans through the Accelerating Access to Care Initiative.”

About 70 percent of the 731 facilities reviewed were using alternatives to wait-list procedures to make the wait-list times appear shorter, the audit found, and more than 10 percent of the 4,000 employees interviewed said they had been instructed in how to falsify wait-list data.

At a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing Monday evening, Richard Griffin, the VA’s acting inspector general, said his office is reviewing 69 VA medical facilities and is coordinating with the Justice Department when inspectors identify potential criminal violations, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“The issue of manipulation of wait lists is not new to VA,” Griffin told the WSJ. “And since 2005 the [inspector general] has issued 18 reports that identified at both the national and local level deficiencies in scheduling, resulting in lengthy wait times and in negative impact on patient care.”

Accompanying the release of the VA’s review data Monday morning, Gibson announced a hiring freeze among senior positions at the VA and said the VA will “trigger administrative procedures” against senior leaders in charge of problem facilities.

And he said he had ordered an outside audit of VA health care facilities to confirm the VA’s OIG report.

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Finally, an honest assessment by the VA

Written by Eric on June 3, 2014 in: Uncategorized |

In recent weeks, I’ve been biting my tongue and refusing to write about the growing scandal in the VA, triggered by the allegations out of Phoenix about obscenely long wait times, officials who falsified wait time records, and vets who tried to hold officials accountable being denied service the longest.

My reason for silence is that I have been refusing to participate in a public charade.

In America, we tend to react to scandals like these without ever fixing anything. There’s a crescendo of blame that leads to investigations until our fickle public attention shifts elsewhere, at which time everything returns to normal. I’ve refused to get involved until now because our vets are too important for this to proceed as normal.

This scandal followed a predictable pattern until VA Secretary Eric Shinseki tendered his resignation. Then his replacement, Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson, took an unusual step with an unusually strong initial statement:

“Not all veterans are getting the timely access to the healthcare that they have earned,” Gibson said. “Systemic problems in scheduling processes have been exacerbated by leadership failures and ethical lapses. I will use all available authority to swiftly and decisively address issues of willful misconduct or mismanagement.”

First, I agree these are leadership issues. Most of the VA personnel I’ve known have been overworked and trying hard. But many of them struggle in conditions their bosses should have been working to prevent. Over the years, I’ve learned that weak and insecure bosses surround themselves with losers who make them look better – and they tend to protect these failures so they don’t look like failures themselves.

So those were encouraging words. But only words.

Still, this is a promise to which we can hold Gibson accountable. For that reason, I’d encourage President Obama to keep the acting secretary in place long enough to see whether he can deliver on that promise.

And there are three main ways we can know whether the acting secretary is living up to his word.

First, the Department of Veteran Affairs Office of the Inspector General has been publishing individual reports this year on specific VA offices, rating them on honest wait times and how well they follow the protocols. Gibson should act on those reports, firing the VA directors whose facilities are failing and putting directors of the borderline facilities on probation.

Second, the acting secretary should take a look at the obscene amount of merit bonuses paid to VA employees whose job performances don’t justify such rewards. Directors of borderline facilities who have approved exceptional bonuses ought to be given the boot as well.

Third, Gibson should rate all VA facilities by the length of time it takes for vets to get appointments with doctors, then track their improvement in three-month intervals, again removing the directors whose facilities fail to improve.

As I’ve been writing these words, I’ve been interrupted several times by phone calls from a former Army Ranger named Danny Reed II, a West Virginian who had been involved in the “rescue” of Private 1st Class Jessica Lynch from insurgents in Iraq. Reed has known since 2003 that he has seven bulging disks in his spinal cord as a result of his jumps out of helicopters, but he ran into trouble with the VA when the pain became severe this year.

He told me that he waited seven hours in a VA emergency room before doctors sent him home without any help. He waited three months for an MRI, which showed that one of the bulging disks had herniated. And he’s facing spinal cord surgery Thursday in a civilian hospital because he says he can’t get adequate help in a VA hospital.

I hear stories like these all the time, and they’re an outrage. The acting secretary has promised swift and decisive action to correct this outrage, and we all should hold him accountable.



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