Written by: Will Northrop
“The price of freedom can be seen here.” For some, this statement might have very little meaning. This statement is located outside the VA Hospital in Syracuse, New York. To me, this quote holds much more personal value than it may to others. Far too many people fail to realize the sacrifices American veterans have made in their lifetime’s to protect their own. Some of the heroic actions these men and women so selflessly demonstrated took a toll on their bodies, both mentally and physically leaving them in state where medical attention is needed. Within the walls of any VA Hospital is where you will find American heroes of this type. The gap between age and character in this setting may be decades apart, but the common goal of each individual within any VA Hospital is the same; helping one another to get through the day. The road these men and women have chosen to take since their days in the service differ from individual to individual, creating a number of contact zones. Whether it be age, mental stability, or financial status, each zone represents its own set of demographics.
In order to provide aid for those in need, Robert Marx founded the Disabled American Veterans Association, also known as the DAV in 1920. The DAV is a nonprofit organization funded by the government and private donors. Its purpose of operation is to provide a means of transportation to any American veteran, disabled or not, free of charge. In Syracuse alone, DAV’s 33 vans are used to transport patients to and from their homes to the VA Hospital located in the heart of Syracuse, or any VA relatable clinics. The Veterans Administration, or VA, operates the nation’s largest integrated healthcare system. With more than 1,700 hospitals, clinics, community living centers, domiciliaries, readjustment counseling centers, and other facilities, there is no question as to why it is the largest operating healthcare system in the United States. In New York, there are VA hospitals in Syracuse, Albany, Batavia, Bath, and Buffalo. If it weren’t for the services provided by the DAV or the VA, many Veterans would not have healthcare or means of transportation to the various treatments they need.
Prior to conducting any of my field hours, I knew very little about the services the VA has to offer. The existence of the DAV was completely unknown to me, let alone the fact that it is a service offering free transportation to any American veteran to and from their treatments. When I decided to do my field hours at the VA, it was a bit unsettling because I was not sure how I would fit into this type of environment. An experience like this is what entering a contact zone is all about; putting one’s self into a predicament where they may feel a bit out of place. The VA was a perfect contact zone to put myself into.
Growing up in a family having little to do with the military, surrounding myself with veterans of various wars was a bit alarming at first. I was by far the youngest individual in the hospital that morning, and received a few unwelcoming looks as I walked through the halls between waiting rooms. Many of the men and women waiting for treatment most likely saw me as another ungrateful teenager filling a volunteer requirement to spruce up his resume. What they did not know though was I was in fact at the hospital doing research on them. Far too many people overlook the sacrifices American veterans have made for people like you and I to preserve our freedoms. Not all are looking for recognition for their duties, but I figured it would be a kind gesture to make the stories of some of these modern day heroes known.
Early on in the day, I was given the privilege to speak one on one with a few of the veterans being transported to the VA. When I explained to them the purpose of my presence, they all were pleased and impressed to hear about the study I was conducting. One of the men, George, commented on my task by saying, “There’s a lot to write about in this place.” At the time, I was unaware of what to expect of my day at the VA, but after George’s comment, I knew what he said would hold true. Although the images of the men and women seen on the murals of DAV vans seemed young and high spirited, George’s comment made me second guess what to expect once I actually arrived at the hospital.
Before I even had the chance to meet George and the other veterans, I met up with Ed, a volunteer driver for the DAV who I rode along with for the morning. Ed was an Air Force Veteran, who served during the Korean conflict. He completed basic training at Sampson Air Force Base in Geneva, New York. From there he spent time at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi and the 663 ACW Squadron in Lake City, Tennessee. What Ed gained from his four years in the military, he explained, was the discipline enforced each and every day. After speaking with a few other veterans, they each made similar comments regarding what they gained most from their time spent serving in the military. Discipline was a common answer to each of the men’s response. This form of discipline is not something men and women like those I spoke with have lost over the years. I could tell right away Ed was a sharp guy simply by the respect he showed toward the garage tenant as we pulled out early that morning. The sincere interest he displayed when asking me questions about the research I was doing only improved upon my interpretation of his personality. Not once did he interrupt me in my response or make any negative comments to my questions. The discipline drilled into these men years ago has remained relevant to the way they conduct themselves today. It is a true sign of the character the military engraves into an individual.
A great way to build character of this magnitude is having the ability to put others before yourself. During my day spent at the VA hospital, I experienced many individuals’ selfless acts. On many occasions during my time spent at the VA, I observed many Veterans helping other Veterans. Some were physically or mentally better off than others, which made it an amazing experience to watch. Here was a mixture of men and women from all different branches of the military helping one another. Despite the competition between branches to determine who the best is, or most elite, at the VA there was no sign of that. One might actually observe an Army vet assisting a Navy vet or vice versa. This action may seem abnormal to any man or woman involved in these two branches of the military, but at this point in these individuals’ lives, they’ve been able to set their differences aside and help one another. This type of contact zone is one that goes well beyond walls of the VA in itself. Here you have people that were “rivals” at one point in time, still making sarcastic comments to each other, going out of their way to lend a hand.
People like Ed and George are prime examples of these selfless acts. Once a week, Ed drives a transport van for the DAV. Every day, George volunteers his time to assist veterans in the hospital. As George said to me, “Seeing some of them just breaks your heart.” One of the comments Ed made to me, “If you are ever feeling sorry for yourself, you ought to take a stroll through the halls of the VA,” really hit home. After experiencing so many different contact zones in the VA, what Ed said was completely true. George himself is disabled, and for a period in his life felt sorry for himself because of the pain he suffered. This self-pity dissipated once he began volunteering at the VA a few years ago. He came to the conclusion that there was, “Absolutely nothing wrong with me compared to these guys.” It truly does break your heart to see the condition many of these men and women are in. For some, they might not be with us today if it weren’t for organizations such as the VA. One man with whom I spoke with explained to me how he was living of charitable donations from the Salvation Army. This raises the question of are we doing enough as free American citizens to give back to those who sacrificed their lives for ours? If not, what more can we do?
The years these brave men and women spent in the field has taken a toll on their bodies. For that reason, treatment centers such as the VA have been set up to give back to our vets. Every breath of freedom we take, someone else takes their last, preserving that freedom. It would be inhumane not to recognize these individuals for all they have done. Providing healthcare to recover from years of wear and tear is only a small tribute to them compared with what they have sacrificed for the sake of freedom. The experiences some individuals have had, from what I was told, has not always been pleasant or easy going. As Ed explained, he does not qualify to receive the benefits the VA offers due to the fact his income is high enough, and he can afford his healthcare on his own. This was not the case for another man I spoke with. Tim, an Army veteran from the Vietnam War, comes to the VA from time to time for treatment. For Tim, gaining admittance was a story in itself. When he first attempted to set up an appointment at the VA, there was no record of him in the system. After numerous phone calls, a few referrals, and persistence, Tim was finally able to get the treatment he needed. I was impressed with how calmly Tim described this situation. From Tim’s perspective, when responsible for the lives of other soldiers, there may not be time to wait for referrals or phone calls to be made. This represents another example of the character the military engraves within its soldiers during their time spent in service.
Entering this unfamiliar world within the VA hospital, the contact zones I encountered led me to a few conclusions. Regardless of the difference in age, as a seventeen year old high school student observing veterans much older than I, I could not help but feel grateful for the sacrifices they have made to guarantee the freedoms I enjoy today. I feel a sense of responsibility to preserve their freedoms, as they once did. With regards to individual wealth, I was astonished to learn that a veteran’s personal income can determine the accessibility of long term healthcare available to them. These different layers brought me to the final conclusion that no matter what background one comes from, the commitment to one another these veterans have is next to none. Whether it be on the battlefield or in the halls of the VA hospital in Syracuse, New York, no man or woman is left behind.
Will Northrop is a senior at West Genesee High School in Camillus, New York. As an active member in his school, Northrop was a captain of the Varsity football team, an active member on the Student Council and was also inducted into the National Honor Society. In the fall, Northrop will be attending Syracuse University with hopes to pursue Mechanical Engineering and to participate in SU’s ROTC program.