by Taylor Brady
As a fellow veteran, you may be at an increased risk of chronic illnesses due to your environmental and occupational exposures during your time in military service. If you are experiencing new symptoms that won’t resolve, go see a physician and get screened. If you don’t receive answers, you need to go somewhere else until you do. Most healthcare providers are not afforded the opportunity to learn about veterans as a specific population. Prepare to advocate for yourself if needed.
Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to come across a social media post regarding a health symposium for veterans, family members, and healthcare providers through the HunterSeven Foundation. As a studying healthcare provider, I felt like it was a great opportunity to broaden my horizons in hopes to provide better care to a specific population. Although I was attending as a healthcare provider, as I heard the information presented, I realized I was there as a veteran.
I was someone who was likely at an increased risk of chronic health diagnoses due to my own time in service. I had spent years working on aircraft flightlines with multiple deployments that had increased my risk for acute and chronic illness. I had entered my military service with a bachelor’s in health science and over halfway through my doctorate, yet I was unaware of the risk to my own health. Maybe it was my naïve invincibility mindset that kept me in the dark. I thought if I hadn’t been around burn pits or served in a special forces career field, I wouldn’t be affected. Unfortunately, for many veterans, that isn’t the case.
My personal research into risks associated with military service and deployments continued so I could be better prepared as a veteran and as a healthcare provider. I realized that not only did I lack the knowledge of the health risks, but I was also unaware of what the next step was after leaving military service. I had done the bare minimum of filing my VA disability claims and attending the required attending appointments, but I didn’t know what came next.
As I shared my experience with my civilian classmates, I found a group of individuals that were interested in my military experience. They were particularly interested in the culture and its effects on my health. In response to the growing interest, I decided to share. I was surprised by the turnout and the interactions. And since, have had similar responses when presenting to healthcare providers and fellow veterans. The turnout is always bigger than expected, the questions are always more diverse than planned, and the audience is always more interactive than I imagined.
I see veterans and healthcare providers without the education they desperately deserve and need to provide the best possible outcomes for veterans’ health. While I will continue to do my part to educate my fellow healthcare providers, I know we, as veterans must also do our part. No one cares about our health as much as we do, and I believe we can have a profound impact on how our care is carried out if we can take the appropriate steps and educate those around us. So, through research and my personal experience, I came up with a list of things I think other veterans should know:
- File a VA claim upon separation from military service and take it seriously. Try your best to keep in mind that your current health status is not what your health will necessarily look like 25 years from now. If you experienced negative health effects that you believe may be tied to military service, file the claim, and get the assistance needed.
- Establish care with the VA after separating or retiring. Regardless of whether you have a service-connected disability or your discharge status when leaving the military, you are entitled to some benefits, but you are required to establish care at your nearest VA location. Reach out and ask what the requirements are now before requiring healthcare services. This will make it easier to claim your additional benefits like wheelchairs, walkers hearing aids, and health care appointments in a timelier manner.
- Inform your civilian providers of your veteran status so they can be aware of your increased exposure risk. Keep in mind, that many won’t know what to do with the information. However, the more it is documented, the better chance you have of it being seen by someone who will. It can also provide you the opportunity to educate your provider on why it matters so they can be better prepared for you and fellow veterans in the future.
- If you have a change in health status or symptoms that don’t resolve (things like coughing, unexpected weight loss, GI issues, new or changing skin spots, etc.) see a physician and make sure you get the answers you need.
- If you have a new condition like Parkinson’s disease, cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, Guillain Barre, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, etc. consider filing a new VA claim. The VA lists toxic exposures and chronic diseases that have been associated with military service.
- Spread the word to fellow veterans.
- Most importantly, you are not alone. There are other veterans facing similar challenges and a number of organizations leading the way in research and advocacy that can help. HunterSeven is the reason I am now aware of my risks and I believe they are working hard to lead the way in advocacy, research, and veteran support.
I recognize many of you may be fully aware of the health risks associated with your military service and so my hope for you is that you continue to follow through with the steps to support your health and file VA claims as necessary. I encourage you to follow through and establish care with a primary care physician that can advocate for you and your health. Lastly, I challenge you to spread the knowledge to those around you, both civilians and veterans to improve veteran health outcomes.
Whether you are new in your healthcare journey as a veteran or have taken all the appropriate steps, remember to advocate for yourself and those around you and be willing to educate your providers if they are unaware. My hope is that more veterans simply seek out the healthcare they need because frankly, no one else will do it for us. Education is a key factor and truly believe that by taking our own initiative and by spreading the word, we can make a difference in veteran healthcare.
Taylor is a veteran of the United States Air Force who served as an aircraft maintenance professional. After multiple tours overseas, she developed an interest in healthcare after seeing significant and often insidious health issues many of her fellow veterans faced. Taylor will graduate this year as a Doctor of Physical Therapy and looks forward to working directly with the veteran community. Her goal is to continue education and advocacy to improve overall health outcomes for veterans. In her free time, she enjoys being outdoors with her dogs or in a quiet spacing reading.