Ed Moeglein chose to make the military his life out of a sense of duty to country.
“We were in that kind of a community,” Ed says of why he chose to enlist. “Both my father and father-in-law were World War II veterans. Growing up all my friends’ dads were World War II or Korean War veterans.” Ed’s decision to join was all about duty: “we just felt like it was our turn.”
So, in 1971, Ed joined the Air Force and was sent to Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, a forward operating base where he worked airbase defense as security police.
He spent six years in the Air Force, putting wear and tear on his body, specifically his knees. In combat school and during his tour, he’d train, climb towers, and jump from trucks, all while carrying his equipment, ammunition, and weapons.
During a routine night, Ed stepped in a hole and twisted his knee to the point of needing to be sent stateside.
“They medevaced me out to the Philippines then to Texas where I was for a few weeks while they decided what to do with my leg,” Ed recalls. “They were going to send me to my next duty assignment, but I was security police and couldn’t run or anything, so a doctor had to take a look at me.”
At a joint Air Force and Veterans Affairs hospital in North Dakota, Ed received his first knee surgery.
One surgery leads down a painful road
Ed’s recovery went well at first. His knee seemed to be healing and he was able to go back on duty, transferring to Alaska to continue his work as security police.
But a few years later after leaving the Air Force, Ed started experiencing problems with his knee.
“My knee started clicking and banging and catching,” Ed remembers. “I went to see an orthopedic surgeon, who could tell right away that I had had a patellar-tendon transfer. When I confirmed that is what I got done at the military and VA hospital in North Dakota, he told me that procedure was an experiment that had proven to be a failure. That was the first I had heard of it.”
To fix the problems caused by his initial surgery, Ed would undergo 11 more surgeries over the years on just that knee, rebuilding, replacing, and removing parts until Ed’s kneecap had to be removed all together.
And that is when the back pain started.
The surgeries were changing the length of Ed’s left leg, causing him to walk differently and his back and hips to take additional strain. After years of bringing up the back pain to doctors and being told his knee issues wouldn’t be affecting his back, the doctors finally realized Ed was in significant pain and his back was getting worse.
With a wife and two kids to support, Ed did what he could to make work and life manageable, including spinal injections to control the pain.
“I’ve been having spinal injections since 1983, but they never sent me to a spine specialist. So I didn’t know any better than to keep working and try to keep my legs going.”
The continued wear on his legs and the rest of his body meant medical retirement for Ed and the need for a handicap-accessible home. Ed turned to his local VAs to help manage and improve his conditions.
But for a man who’d served his country in a time of war, the worst battle he would fight was with the VA.
From a cane to a walker to a wheelchair
The care that Ed has received over the years at the VA has ranged in quality, though most of it has been subpar, specifically for pain management.
Ed’s chronic pain was so bad that his management options were methadone or morphine. He used the former. After a few years taking methadone, he mentioned to his VA doctor that it wasn’t working as well as it used to. He was told he just had to take more.
“I got real sick and ended up at the VA hospital because the medication was poisoning me,” Ed says. “When I talked to the doctor he told me that shouldn’t happen until I was about 60 years old. At that time I was 59 and a half.”
That seems like something a prescribing doctor should check first. But that is the kind of care Ed and millions of other veterans are stuck receiving.
Ed added a spinal stimulator to his management efforts, which worked for a few years, but his condition has continued to deteriorate. He now has severe spinal stenosis that over just a few years has brought him from walking with a cane to a bariatric walker. After several dangerous falls with the walker, he was given a wheelchair.
“They didn’t send me to any kind of spinal care,” Ed said through tears. “I had to pursue that on my own. And now I’m stuck in a wheelchair.”
Being bound to a wheelchair has worsened Ed’s conditions, caused him new problems, and kept him from being active outside his chair, as moving from the wheelchair to his couch or bed is excruciatingly painful.
When the Veterans Choice Program was introduced in 2014, Ed was hopeful he could get better care from doctors he chose himself outside the VA. But with the VA in charge of managing the program, that wasn’t going to happen.
The VA is still failing veterans
After the Phoenix VA scandal brought to light thousands of veterans facing delayed health care, Congress passed legislation that allowed veterans to use their VA benefits outside the VA.
While the program was great in theory and worked well for many, veterans such as Ed saw the ways it didn’t work well in practice.
“I would get spinal referrals to outside doctors, but the referrals would either get tied up or denied,” Ed recalls. “Many providers wouldn’t even participate in the Choice Program because the VA wasn’t reimbursing them. So, I’d be back at square one with being referred somewhere else.”
When the VA MISSION Act was signed into law a few years later, Ed was hopeful again that issues with the Choice Program would be fixed. “I was never offered community care, I had to pursue it” Ed said of his options after the Community Care Program was established.
But once he was referred out to a community physician, he was able to get his chronic pain under better control and was happy with his care, at least for a little while.
Unfortunately, when his doctor retired in December 2021, Ed was sent back into the VA system to get his care from the VA or wait to be referred to a community care pain management doctor. He has been waiting for pain management care since then — well over a year — and describes his resting pain at a “9 or 10 level”.
Hearing Ed tell the story through waves of pain and tears is as heartbreaking as it gets.
Fixing veterans health care for future veterans
Ed is still battling the VA day in and day out to get the care he needs, but every appointment or consultation is met with another hoop to jump through.
“They say they are there to help, but I keep getting the runaround,” Ed says. “The whole time, my health is going downhill.”
He believes the runaround and bureaucracy of the VA is a factor in the veteran suicide epidemic. “These vets see the VA as often hopeless, and they give up.”
Ed sees the way for the VA to truly help veterans: it needs to embrace the reforms Congress has put in place and put veterans’ best interests first.
“A lot of guys like the VA for their care, and that is great. But if they can’t see us at VA, let us out into the community with our benefits instead of going round and round at VA while they wait for us to die.”
For Ed, it’s not just about veterans of his era; he is concerned for how the VA will handle the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have their own unique needs. “The VA needs to allow these guys to get care that is appropriate for them, not just the care that their local VAs are able to give.”
Speaking up for other veterans who are struggling like him and the next generation to come has inspired Ed to tell his VA story.
He is hopeful that veterans sharing their experiences and Congress listening will create the needed changes at the VA.
What have your experiences been at the VA? Tell us at My VA Story.