WASHINGTON -- Justin Minyard, a 9/11 first responder at the Pentagon who went on to serve tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, insists "medical technology really did save my life."
(Source: US Army)
The 13-year Army veteran appeared at a Capitol Hill briefing this week to discuss "innovations in veteran's care." The focus was not just on battlefield care, although there have been plenty of innovations since the beginning of the Afghan war in the fall of 2001. Military doctors and the companies that make medical technologies are now thinking about long-term care for the Afghan and Iraq war veterans standing in long lines at Veteran Administration hospitals seeking treatment for physical and psychological wounds.
Minyard's presence at the briefing was designed to showcase the marvels of medical technology, but it is also highlighted a larger problem: the VA's shocking propensity for dispensing opiates by the handfuls as a cure for everything from chronic pain to night sweats. Minyard was swept up in the dysfunction, and could have easily slipped beneath the water as have so many shattered veterans.
Instead, Minyard chose to heal himself.
Following the September 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon, Minyard ruptured several discs in his back while searching for survivors. Neither back surgeries nor drug regimens eased his pain. He suffered additional spinal injuries during a nighttime operation in Afghanistan in which he and other soldiers riding in a helicopter were to lower themselves to the desert floor by rope. Minyard missed the rope, fell 20 meters and five fully equipped comrades landed on top of him.
By the time he reached Iraq (he speaks Arabic), Minyard's chronic back pain from extensive nerve damage was so debilitating that he had to be medevacked to a field hospital. Prior to his collapse, he was receiving spinal injections and was injecting himself with pain killers before "we would lock and load our weapons and go out the gate" on another patrol.
More surgeries followed, but brought no relief. After a complex procedure in which eight titanium rods were inserted in his lower back, Minyard's prognosis boiled down to this: The doctors had done all they could and, at 28, he would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
"I was in a massive amount of chronic pain that dominated my entire life."
Justin Minyard returned from Iraq a broken man, figuratively and literally. His encounters with the breathtakingly incompetent VA healthcare system predictably resulted in his addiction to opiates. His life was now reduced to little more than thinking about refilling his prescriptions and scheming to obtain higher dosages.
"I was occupying space," he recalled, deeply regretting the many times he snapped at his young daughter when she asked him to read to her. "My life took a very, very dark turn," the tall, ramrod straight Minyard told a packed room in the Rayburn House Office Building.
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