Like many veterans, I have a love/hate relationship with the VA.

The Department of Veterans Affairs sends me a check every month for the parts of my knees that won’t grow back, the metal screen in my stomach, the various screws and pins they cobbled me together with, and they even put up the cash to let me finish my bachelor’s and master’s degrees.  They also make headlines frequently for hanging up on suicidal veterans, leaving people on waiting lists for treatment for so long that they die, and possibly even infecting hundreds of veterans with HIV.  Maybe love/hate isn’t strong enough.  I’ve spent more hours in VA waiting rooms than I spent cleaning my rifle before turning it back in to the armory – and if your experience in the military was anything like mine, we’re talking a lot of lost hours.

The closest large VA medical center to me is about two hours away with traffic, so I tend to keep to civilian doctors now that I live in Georgia – but I recently ran into a situation that left with without much choice but to make the trek.

I woke up on Friday morning with a large spot taking up a good portion of my vision.  It looked a bit like I’d been staring at the sun for a few hours, with the spot flashing white each time I blinked.  I stumbled around my house a bit, honestly assuming I just wasn’t awake enough to see properly yet, before slowly coming to the difficult realization that the majority of the vision in my right eye was either gone or too blurry to be of use.  I couldn’t focus on the screen of my phone, the lights in my living room hurt, and the only way I could log into my computer was by closing my right eye to give me a clear view of the buttons on the keyboard.

As I’ve written about before, I spend a few nights a week training with a group of martial artists that meet in a local basement.  We don’t swing for the fences when we spar, but we all know why we’re there.  It’s not terribly uncommon to go home with a jaw that hurts to chew, or a puffy right eye.  Having spent the night prior sparring in that very basement, I suddenly realized I may have torn or detached my retina… a fear many fighters have at one time or another.  I got dressed and headed for the local urgent care center, only to have them confirm my fears.

Unfortunately, with my insurance, the corrective surgery would likely cost between one and three thousand dollars out-of-pocket – a sum of money my current budget deemed both “laughable” and “tragic” before crashing Microsoft Excel and probably laughing at me digitally.  Instead, I decided, I would try my luck with the dreaded VA hospital in Decatur, just on the other side of Atlanta.

To my surprise, they said they could see me right away (I was delighted to learn that they take going blind as seriously as I do) so my wife and I packed up the car and started the lengthy drive for what I assumed would be an overwhelmingly negative experience.  The last time I saw a VA doctor, I had two slipped discs in my lower back; I waited for three hours to be seen for two minutes by a man who suggested I “let him know if anything I try works because” his “wife has back problems too,” before tossing me a prescription and sending me on my way.  My wife, who worked briefly in a past life as a nurse’s assistant, felt she needed to make me promise that I wouldn’t let a VA doctor “cut into my eye” without exploring all of my options.  Suffice to say, neither of us expected a very fruitful visit.

Thanks to Atlanta traffic, the drive ended up taking nearly three hours and I reached the packed waiting room for the eye clinic at the sprawling Decatur, Georgia facility with only an hour and a half left before they closed for the day.  Glancing around at the room full of patients waiting to be seen for eye glasses and the like, I immediately wondered if we’d made the drive for nothing.  I pulled my phone out of my pocket, closed my right eye, and began searching for cheap local hotel rooms so I could try coming back the next morning, when a pleasant woman’s voice called my name.