Heads up—I’m told this isn’t an easy read.
“I bet you’re wild in bed, aren’t you? Oh, you’re uppity. I see you’re not wearing a wedding ring–makes sense with an attitude like yours— no man wants to handle you.” Someone said those things to me today.
The VA triggers me. It’s weird to write that sentence—to say those words. I said it out loud after sitting in my truck in the underground parking structure at the Washington, D.C. VA, writing a long email and then sobbing through a phone call with a friend and fellow female veteran.
The actual physical structure of the Veterans Affairs hospital—going there for appointments–causes a level of anxiety I didn’t recognize before today—or didn’t acknowledge.
I’ve ignored it, overlooked it, not spoken about it in general because I felt like somehow I was part of the problem. It’s not me, though. It’s not just me. It’s not. It simply cannot be.
Walking into the VA, through the atrium and towards the bank of elevators is like walking a gauntlet. Cat calls–actual, honest to goodness cat calls—comments, compliments, propositions.
It’s like walking down Bronx’s Fordham Road in the summer, except worse because the VA is a place I go for healing—not harassment.
If you live in the Bronx you learn to ignore the onslaught of voices as you walk to or from the train.
I arrived at the VA today a few minutes late for a noon speech pathology appointment—I’d sent an email when I hit a traffic snag saying I was late, but still felt guilty. I am so excited to be working with this pathologist—I hate seeming like I don’t respect her time by being late.
I parked underground and before I reached the elevator I buttoned my shirt all the way to the top. I was wearing layers—two tanks and a flannel. While my tank tops didn’t expose my cleavage, they were fitted. I admonished myself for not wearing a hoodie, like I usually do, buttoned up and walked towards the door.
Traffic dude checking IDs said hello—I ignored him because it irked me when he said, “Thanks beautiful” when he checked my ID as I drove in.
What’s wrong with me that it bothers me to be called beautiful? Am I too sensitive?
Crossed the street with a woman, older than me, stately, African American, walked with a cane. Slowed to match her pace, said hello, discussed the weather.
Long line on the sidewalk for the food truck parked at the curb. Saw a flow through point where people were cutting through the line, stepped towards it, said “excuse me, sir,” to the 40 something dude decked out in Wizards gear.
“Damn, girl, you smell fine—where you going?”
I JUST farted—will you please excuse this dear lady walking through with me? Mmmm’kay. Thanks.
She looked at me, took my arm and said, “You sure handled him alright.”
Sigh. Yes ma’am. I guess I did. Pass more people. Talking, relaxing, congregating.
I reach the decision point: hit button and walk through handicapped door—and the half dozen or so dudes standing literally right there, against the frame as you enter, or walk through the revolving door and have a bit more breathing room as I enter the building.
My friend is still beside me, so I hit the button and walk in behind her.
I said goodbye as we passed into the atrium. The atrium was different today—there were more people than usual, which is saying a lot because it’s a busy VA. Someone was playing the piano and the space between the security table and the elevators was full of tables and booths and artwork and—people.
Too much. I escaped into the elevator. Kind fellow named Floyd (it was written on his shirt) confirmed I was going to the basement, pressed the button. I remarked about the increased activity in the atrium and he smiled. “An awareness fair or something.” Ok.
Bear with me, this is almost over.
Left the elevator, picked the hallway with the fewest men in it and headed towards my appointment. I checked in, apologized for being (6 minutes) late and she smiled. “No, she in’t here anyways–she’s on vacation. Your appointment is next week.” Fck. Me. Running. Well. At least I wasn’t late.
Yes ma’am. You need any admin tasks done or anything, since I’m here. She stared, realized it was a joke, smiled and said no.
Stopped in to ask my case worker a question–this is a new thing, a caseworker. It’s like having a VA concierge. It’s kind of crazy. He knows things, makes calls, sets appointments, calls me to remind me about appointments.
Amazing. He’s been “on my case” ha! since I visited the ER after I fell down the stairs in January.
That fall put me on the TBI and PolyTrauma radar and he’s a TBI social worker and, well, now I have a con-sig-lee-air-ee.
He’s good, too. He saw me in the hallway and said, “You don’t have an appointment today.”
Heh. Told him I messed up the actual week. No worries.
Asked my admin question. Left.
Elevator. Same bank, so I come out in the same place on the ground floor, because I get lost if I don’t. I’m in the back right corner, facing the opposite side, not the front, looking at my phone and the African American Vietnam Veteran aged man standing in front of me, facing the front of the elevator says, quietly, “Damn. With that hair all wild like that you look like you just had a real good time in bed. I bet you’re wild in bed, aren’t you?”
I ignored him. Looked up, but not at him. Nurse on the elevator, with headphones in, gave me a look, complete with raised eyebrow, that said, “He ain’t right.”
All of a sudden I’m perspiring and all I can think about is getting off the elevator. In a flash, I think of the elevator at the Bronx VA in 2014 where, as a VA employee in the hospital for a medical appointment for myself and not wearing any employee ID—just a vet, I had an anxiety attack—seemingly unprovoked.
I was in the elevator with three men. None of them said a thing to me and I had a flashback to rape night–the night I was still a teenager and three black classmates, all Marines, all the same rank, raped me in a motel room outside of Camp Johnson. That’s something I’d processed and locked way more than 20 years ago. Something I’ve written but haven’t shared in it’s entirety. That elevator episode led to some much needed therapy and, combined with frustration about the say do gap in my position description, caused me to resign my position at the VA several months later.
Please don’t freak out please don’t freak out please don’t…
It was a quick ride–one floor–and the doors opened into the cacophony of the awareness fair (Floyd’s words) right there in the lobby. Steeling myself, I waited for that old dude to get off the elevator first—he didn’t.
I walked out, with him close behind me and he leaned in, pressed against me as he laughed in my ear and said, “Well? Are you wild in bed?”
I stopped, turned to face him and growled, “You’re rude, you’re not funny and besides being a dirty old man, no one wants to hear your commentary.”
His response? “Well damn, you’re uppity. I see you ain’t wearing a wedding ring—makes sense with an attitude like yours—no man wants to handle you.”
I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped. He walked away, I walked in small circles for a minute, stopped at the Center for Women Veteran’s table, grabbed a flyer and walked out of the VA. I thought briefly about going up to the third floor for group acupuncture—it’s a walk in thing. It’s amazing.
There’s no way I was getting back in an elevator and I was too upset to find the stairs.
No eye contact. No smiles, NO chance for anyone to engage—not slow enough to help anyone. Just out to my truck as fast as I could.
I asked a woman in the parking lot to take my picture—she was confused but I told her I was about to send it to a friend and tell her something awful had just happened. She obliged. Sad, isn’t it? I felt compelled to document what I was wearing, prove I hadn’t invited the unwanted commentary. I’m not posting a photo because I know his behavior wasn’t ok, no matter how I was dressed or how unkempt my hair was.
I sent my friend Jaime a text, started to write an email to the case manager—if I don’t tell someone what just happened, I might implode. Jaime called as I was typing and, as I started to tell her what happened, I broke down and sobbed. I felt like a jerk for crying, and when I was done, I think I made a joke to that effect. She said it happens all the time—it’s why they redesigned the atrium so there weren’t rows and rows of chairs people had to walk past to get to the elevators. It’s why she opted for care outside the VA. My amazing friend who is a police officer and combat veteran chooses to get care outside the VA because of the persistent abuse and harassment at the “flagship” hospital.
When I was calm, I finished the email to my case manager:
It feels like walking gauntlet every time I walk in or out of the VA hospital. I vacillate between avoiding eye contact altogether and speed walking to my truck or appointment and waking like a civilized human being and making eye contact and returning polite greetings.
It’s always patients—not employees—often when I come to the VA I have a similar encounter—some dude feels like he’s got a right to make a comment about my body, my presence, my gender. For a long time it’s why I DIDN’T use the VA. And now, I’m getting great care —and still leave feeling terrible.
- I feel terrible because I yelled at an old man
- Because I’m white and I seemed rude to an old black dude
- Because I’m younger and appear healthier than he is and therefor should have brushed it off
When I first saw Dr. S she asked if I was in therapy for MST—I told her I’d been to a group orientation but it was too stressful to sit in a room with a bunch of men and contemplate having a conversation about being raped —by a group of men.
I’m not in therapy right now and I think I need to be—but I don’t want to come to the VA for anything more than I have to–sad, because I appreciate the care I get. The idea of 75 minutes in traffic to walk the gauntlet and then have therapy where I dig into trauma only to walk the gauntlet again and go home seems like it’d do more harm than good.
Can I sign up for therapy outside of the VA if I find a provider who takes Choice?
I’m done crying—and whining. (Literally)
I don’t even know why I’m telling you this except to say I want to believe the VA is a place I WON’T be harassed or cat called or disrespected—a place I can come to heal.
Thanks for listening (or reading, as it were) and thanks for always being so helpful.
He called about 45 minutes later. Apologized. Expressed dismay. Couldn’t imagine what that was like. Said we can set my appointments up for TeleHealth so I don’t have to walk the gauntlet every week. I’m not sure how effective speech pathology will be remotely, and I have a series of other appointments where I need to physically be IN the building, but I was calmed by his suggestion. Kicker? That commotion the atrium? Today was military sexual assault awareness day. Yeah. And I ran from the building, panicked.
And so, what is my point? Do I have a point? Do I have to have a point? A call to action? How about this? If you see veterans being assholes to other veterans at the VA, say something. It’s tough sometimes, I imagine. The kicker? I’m the type of person who stands up for other people, in most situations, but I didn’t have the fortitude to do more than call him a dirty old man and run out the door.
USMC. WM. MST. TBI. PTSD. So many acronyms. I hate acronyms. I’m a writer, an aunt, a sister, a friend, a veteran, a grower. I’m a U.S. Marine. Yeah. I was raped. And yeah. I lost someone to suicide. And yeah. I’m dealing with it in a whole variety of ways. I love on my nephews, I garden, I volunteer, I stay in touch with friends. I surround myself with people who challenge me to be better, smarter —more.
I tell people most days I have PTSD, some days PTSD has me. Today was definitely some day.
Tomorrow is a new day and that old asshole from the elevator? I evicted him, since, as a wise friend said, he doesn’t pay rent and doesn’t deserve any more space, any more of my time.