Long turned to VA, but he found himself shuffled to other hospitals – and billed


Gale Long's dress military coat doesn't fit perfectly these days.

The jacket, normally preserved in a cedar chest at Long's Milton-Freewater home, was tailored for a slightly smaller version _ measured for the young man who entered military duty almost 63 years ago.

And, like the olive-green uniform, the promise Long felt he heard when he signed up for the Army during World War II isn't quite what it once was.

As the oldest of 10 children in a hard-working Iowa family, Long was attracted by what military duty meant for him _ a chance to see the world and make a mark in it.

The free health care for life promoted by Long's Army recruiter sweetened the deal.

Not that he needed it when he left the service. At 21 years old, he was in good health, Long said. Besides, the nearest Veterans Affairs hospital was more than 100 miles away from where he landed in Iowa.

Like his Good Conduct and WWII Victory medals and ribbons, cap and jacket, Long put recruiting promises away when he returned to civilian life.

But he assumed VA health care ``would work like it was supposed to'' if he ever needed it, he said.

``They told us we could go to the Veterans Hospital. It was supposed to be for life.''

It seemed reasonable. Long gave four of his young years to the Army, stationed primarily at the new Laredo Army Air Field in Texas.

There, as an aerial gunnery instructor, he trained the men who would eventually do battle in the strategic air offenses. Later, those attacks were credited with unprecedented destruction of German labor, transportation and industries.

The men Long helped to form into flying sharpshooters hold a place in history as part of a turning point in the fight for freedom over Europe's skies.

Through 1940s cutting-edge cinematography and laser lights, Long took men through Japanese and German air battles that had been filmed by airplane-mounted cameras. Like the video games of today, technology would indicate every hit and simulate the vibration of 50-caliber machine guns.

It was a good job, one that felt like a real contribution to the war effort, he said.

But when the war was over, it was over. Long married, fathered three children and enjoyed a career that included work as a police captain, a finance officer and a real-estate broker.

Up until warning signs of heart disease 25 years ago, he didn't give the recruiting promises another thought.

When Long, 81, had an apparent heart attack in February 2004, he was familiar enough with the symptoms to know to call for an ambulance. The crew followed procedure and let the VA medical center know Long was on his way.

``They said they were full, and to take me to St. Mary's,'' Long remembered.

Once there, tests showed there was some sort of trouble; it was decided Long and his symptoms warranted overnight observation.

But, like the VA, St. Mary had no bed available, either.

Long eventually ended up at Walla Walla General Hospital, where he received good care, he said.

Yet, despite transmissions between the VA and the ambulance medics, Long's hospital bill was found by the VA to be an ``unauthorized medical service,'' he said, producing a letter to prove his point.

He and Maxine were left to pay about $1,000, the amount not covered by Medicare.

Long has filed a claim. ``But the clerk who helped me said the VA was so slow with appeals, it takes about a year and half,'' he said.

He isn't really worried about his situation, Long said. But looking down the road that other veterans will travel leaves him troubled.

The Walla Walla facility is top-notch in staff and compassion, the Longs agree. ``I think he's one of their favorites,'' Maxine said with a smile. ``The nurses all hug him.''``The people there are so conscientious, it's hard to see them working under those conditions,'' Long maintains. ``The government has cut the budget, transferred people out and reduced beds.''He believes the government is finding veterans health care to be an easy target for budget cuts, ``giving too much money to stuff that doesn't deserve it,'' he said.

``It's federal money. It should have gone to the VA.''


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