In the Winter of 2009, I was offered a program through the VA to help me with some things I was struggling with. It took place at a Department of Veterans Affairs facility near Cleveland, Ohio. I did write a short piece mentioning that I would be away in Cleveland. Not sure I ever posted this story about that trip. If I did, sorry to waste your time. If I didn’t, well, here it is:
The trip to Cleveland from Minneapolis is about 750 miles or so. I could have driven this distance in a long day on the Interstate Highway System. I have many times before taken such a trip or covered such a distance in a day. This time I settled for another type of conveyance. I used Amtrak.
Train travel is unique to this era for many. In fact there were many people who were overheard talking about this trip being their first time on a train. I have used Amtrak before this. I would travel by train often in the 1990’s. Before that, the occasional local trip, but I had never experienced the travel style of the twentieth century train trip when train travel was in its heyday. I’d never ridden on the Orient Express but wish I had.
I booked on line and printed out a bar code. I took the bar code to the station and held it under a reader and my tickets were printed out immediately. I showed them when I boarded the train and that was it. No check in. No contact with a human being. No metal detector. I guess if the contraption won’t fall from the sky when it crashes from the explosion of a bomb it’s okay to carry more than three drops of sun tan lotion and a gun. Also, since it’s on tracks, you can’t steer it away from where it’s headed.
I got a call the night before I was to board the Empire Builder. Empire Builder is the name of the train that runs on the route from Chicago to Portland and Seattle. It passes through Minneapolis on the trip back to Chicago from the West coast. The phone call told me that the train was late, but to be at the station at the correct time and not wait until the internet web site says the train is suppose to arrive.
This particular train this day was 22 hours behind schedule. Some huge snow storm in the Cascade mountains had put the train behind by almost a full day.
I was to show up when the original ticket specified. Amtrak provided a through bus, actually two of them, to take the Minneapolis passengers directly to Chicago. So my train trip was a bus ride. We left on time and arrived in Chicago, at Union Station, a full hour before the scheduled train would have arrived.
I laid over in Chicago for almost seven hours before the Lake Shore Limited left Chicago headed for New York and Boston. I was getting off at Cleveland and due to arrive a little after six o’clock in the morning.
That train left on time and pulled into Cleveland on time. I slept pretty much right up to the time I had to get off. A friend, someone I had met on The Longest Walk the year before who lives in the Cleveland area, picked me up on that Monday morning. I was traveling light. A small backpack and one duffle suitcase. The Cleveland station was small and compact and it was easy to make the connection with my friend Jen.
We left the parking lot and set out to find a coffee shop to have a cup and visit a little before she’d drop me off about fifteen miles south of downtown Cleveland at the VA facility in Brecksville, OH. Traffic was of little consequence as we headed in the opposite direction of rush hour. We found a Starbucks and went in and caught up on what had been happening in our lives since we last crossed paths in Washington DC the previous July.
Jen knew where Brecksville was and we drove directly there after the coffee. The VA hospital and grounds there is a huge complex right on the main highway, and after I had her drive around looking for a suitable building to drop me off in front of, I got out and started my next adventure which would turn out to be a 37 day stay in ward 24B attending and participating in an in-patient program designed to help me overcome some problems I was having a hard time dealing with.
The typical VA bureaucracy was in full force and I stumbled through the admission process following orders and answering the repeated questions. The first day was an easy one. Get checked in, drug screened, searched and orientated to my new surroundings, then sit and wait. I first came familiar with “Hurry up and wait” in April of 1968 when I was involuntarily inducted into the Army via the draft. Little has changed in the process and span of 40-plus years, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
I was restricted to the ward until I was properly orientated to the protocol of this facility and that meant no leaving without permission and waiting for the meal trolly to bring me a tray instead of joining other
inmates, I mean patients, at the dining hall. The protocol sheet of rules and regulations would be read and I would sign my agreement with the terms that evening. By the start of the second day there, I had full rights to leave the ward and go anywhere in the nine building complex and on the many acres of the campus of the Louis Stokes Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Brecksville, Ohio.
The day shift was in place when I arrived. The evening shift took over around four PM, and the overnight shift woke me up in the morning. The day shift returned, but due to budget cutbacks and short staffing of all the programs at Brecksville and throughout the entire VA system, the staffers worked different shifts and one who might have been there one time during the day would do an overnight later in the same week.
These ward staffers had nothing whatsoever to do with why I was there or the program I was going to attend. This was just the ward staff who were in control of order in the living situation end of the stay. The staff for the program was in place on another floor where the group meeting rooms, classrooms and offices were. Dorm life, as it were, on the ward was not to my liking in any way shape or form. The VA allowed an atmosphere of humiliation and control, much like a penitentiary.
You were accused of wrong doing and guilty unless proven otherwise. My wife mailed me a package soon after I arrived. I had asked for some hot sauce to spice up the daily cafeteria offerings and some nuts to have around to snack on. I wanted a few more short sleeved t-shirts as the heat was cranked up in that place like you wouldn’t believe. Sundry stuff that I didn’t carry with me on the train. This parcel had to be opened and the contents inspected by the staff. They told me they were looking for contraband, but never explained or offered a list of what they considered contraband.
My personal belongings were searched when I got there. I had to turn in the prescriptions that the VA had given me and received a fresh seven day supply of the same drugs I was prescribed from the pharmacy there. I had to turn in my pocket knife, the very tool I used to cut up oranges and apples and remove stubborn labels off the skin of said fruit. I didn’t bring a cell phone, but that would have been confiscated too, along with any lap top computer or music generating device like a walkman or MP3 iPod player and its headphones.
I was given a key to a lock on one drawer of a night stand. All my meds were to be put in this drawer and random checks to see if the drawer is locked were made. The pills given to me by this facility would be randomly called for, and I would have to show them the bottle and the number of pills counted to make sure I was taking them and not selling them.
“Hey man, I got some nitroglycerin, man. Dude, this stuff will give you a headache but it goes away after you’ve used it regularly for 20 years. Only five bucks a hit, man.”
I was not allowed to have things out of my locker or on top of any furniture which was my locker and said night stand. I had to have my bed made by eight AM. No signs or pictures could be posted or taped to the walls. There would be random room checks by drug sniffing dogs handled by the police from the host city of Brecksville, Ohio. Staff could call a search of your personal property at any time for any reason and you have to succumb to a urine test before using the latrine if your name was posted to give, or drop as it is said in the vernacular, a specimen. Refusal of any of these rules meant removal from the program.
Each staff member had their own way of dealing with their responsibility of upholding the law. Like prison, the guards, or ward clerks, were of different demeanor and personality. Some drew the hard line and shouted orders, others had snappy voices and spoke down to the program attendees. Others were mellow and easy going and turned the other way instead of being bothered with counting your pills or making sure you weren’t hanging a picture of your Grand kids on your bed rail.
One in particular was a man we’ll call Tom. Tom was a military retiree. He was in his 40’s. Had already served 20 plus years in the Navy and was on his second career. He looked for rule violations and even when he couldn’t find any, he’d recite the rule to you anyway. He was a real asshole. I got along with him, but made no pretense about the fact that his humiliating manner held me from having any respect for him as a human being at all.
Once, when returning from a town pass on a Saturday evening, there was no request for me to drop a urine sample. Tom was so distraught that I was coming back from town and didn’t have to be tested for drug and alcohol use, he went into a frenzy trying to figure out what was wrong with the system. For surely, in his eyes, I had used and was getting away with it by not having to produce the sample. The next day, Sunday, when I returned from a day pass to go see a movie with friends, he made sure I had to be sampled. We are allowed up to four hours after returning from town to produce the sample. I made him wait until nearly one AM, with him seeking me out multiple times per hour to ask if I was ready, to piss in his cup. Of course I accused him of selling my “clean” stuff to his drug using friends and I insisted on a percentage of the take. He didn’t think I was funny at all.
Another staff person was someone we’ll call Yvette. Yvette was laid back and easy going. You lived and caused no trouble, Yvette left you alone. She never looked for wrong, was polite and respectful to everyone, all of the time. If she was on staff when you came back from a day pass and you were to leave a specimen, she’d put the plastic bag with the sample jar on the counter and when you brought it back, she’d present a tray and ask you to place the sample on it.
My bed was horrible. Not an old army bunk, but a bed with a plastic covered mattress that was hard as a rock. I was given one pillow and it was a small soft pillow at that. I asked one staffer for a second pillow. He told me, “Good luck with that, we don’t have extra pillows.” The next day, I asked another staffer for a second pillow. She asked me what room I was in and what the bed number was. She not only got me another pillow, but she put a case on it, brought it to my room, fluffed it up and placed it on my bed. Sure was a difference in the ward clerk staff. From the ridiculous to the sublime was but a short leap.
On a very personal level, I wondered what I was doing this for. Why was I, at this stage of my life, going through this crap. I volunteered to be here. I asked for help and this is the program they offered. I could have packed up and left, and thought about doing just that, several times. Even though it felt like incarceration, I knew I was free to call a taxi or get on the 77F bus and leave Brecksville VA at any time.
The program itself that I was involved in was very good and helped me immensely with my problems. I met some great people and great staff, people that truly have dedicated their lives to helping people, helping Veterans, overcome certain problems.
I looked for the positive side of this entire experience and to my own surprise, I challenged myself to stick it out, despite what I felt were horrendous dormitory living conditions. I cited to myself that if I could complete the commitment and finish the program, I would be accomplishing something and that would help me in the long run with healing and growth. I actually made a pact with myself and didn’t complain or bitch about my living situation for the last three weeks I was there.
Epilogue: I participated in this program almost three years ago. I still use many of the tools I gathered there to keep me running on a steady keel. I did find the dorm conditions to be more like jail than a learning and help center, but never voiced my concern to the hierarchy of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
I did write about the City of Cleveland and the economy as I spent many days traveling through the city on their mass transit system. This information for this editorial writing was gathered while I lived at the VA in Brecksville, OH.