A FACELESS MAN'S PLEA and THE VA DOES A FAST REVERSAL

Chicago Daily News

By Mike Royko; December 10, 1973 & December 11, 1973
Copied with permission of Chicago Daily News and the author

See follow-up below

Leroy Bailey had just turned 26. He was one of seven kids from a broken family in Maine. He had been in the infantry in Vietnam only one month. Then the rocket tore through the roof of his tent while he was sleeping and exploded in his face.

He was alive when the medics pulled him out. But he was blind. And his face was gone. It's the simplest way to describe it: He no longer had a face.

That was in the spring of 1968. He went to an Army hospital, was discharged and shipped to Hines VA Hospital, west of Chicago. After three years and much surgery, they told him there was little more they could do for him. He still had no face.

Now Bailey spends most his life in the basement of his brother's home in La Grange. The brother moved here from the East to be near him while he was hospitalized. He knits wool hats, which a friend sells for him. He listens to the radio or to a tape player. Because of his terrible wound, most of the goals and pleasures of men his age will always be denied him. But there is one thing he would like to be able to do some day. It isn't much, because most of us take it for granted.

He would like to eat solid foods.

Since 1968, he has eaten nothing but liquids. He uses a large syringe to squirt liquid foods down his throat.

Last year, through some friends of his brother, Bailey met a doctor who specializes in facial surgery. The doctor, Charles Janda of Oak Brook, said he believed he could reconstruct Bailey's face so that he could eat solid foods. But it would require a series of at least six separate operations, possibly more. Bailey eagerly agreed, and the first operation was performed at Mercy Hospital.

Then Dr. Janda and the hospital sent their bills to the Veterans Administration. They did this because Bailey and his brother were under the impression that the VA would pay for any treatment he needed that wasn't available in the VA. The VA refuses to pay the bills. The reason was explained in a remarkable letter sent to Bailey by a VA official.

Dear Mr. Bailey:

Reference is made to the enclosed invoice for services given to you for selective plastic surgery done on September 22, 1972.

It is regretted that payment on the above cannot be approved, since the treatment was for a condition other than that of your service-connected disability.

Outpatient treatment and/or medication may only be authorized for the treatment of a disability which has been adjudicated by the Veterans Administration as incurred in or aggravated by military service.

Any expense involved for this condition must be a personal transaction between you and the doctor.

It is astonishing, I know, but the VA actually told him that he was being treated for something "other than that of your service-connected disability."

I can't even begin to comprehend what they can be talking about. Until he was hit by a rocket, he had teeth. Now he has none. He had eyes. Now he has none. He had a nose. Now he has none. People could look at him. Now most of them turn away. . . So how can this surgery be for anything else but his "service-connected disability?"

I read through his medical records. He could have received a 100-per cent disability rating for any of four separate reasons. He could have received an 80-per cent disability rating for another reason, and a 30-per cent rating for still another. . . . The medical report uses such language as "scars, disfiguring. . .entire midface is missing. . . massive facial injury."

Bailey believes that the VA thinks he wants the surgery just to look better, that it is "cosmetic" surgery .

Even if that were so, then why in the hell not? If we can afford $5 million to make the San Clemente property prettier, we can do whatever is humanly possible for this man's face. . .

But Bailey insists it isn't his appearance that concerns him. He knows it will never be normal. He explains his feelings in an appeal he filed months ago with the VA:

The only thing I am asking for is the ability to chew and swallow my food.

This was the purpose for the whole series of painful and unsuccessful operations I underwent in Hines Hospital between the day of my injury on May 6, 1968, and my eventual discharge from the hospital in 1971.

At the time, I was told the very depressing news that nothing further could be done.

I will never be able to accept this decision...

In some bureaucrat's file cabinet is Bailey's appeal. It has been there for many months. Every day that it sits there, Bailey takes his syringe and squirts liquid nourishment down his throat. If his appeal is turned down, he will spend the rest of his life doing that. Not even once will he be able to sit down and eat at the dinner table with his brother's family, before going back down to the basement to knit hats.

A year after giving the brush-off to blind, faceless Leroy Bailey, the Veterans Administration has reversed itself in almost a matter of minutes. The VA says it now has decided to pay the medical bills Bailey incurred in trying to get his face rebuilt enough to eat solid foods. Since 1968, he has squirted liquid food down his throat.

Almost a year ago, the VA told Bailey he would have to pay for the surgery out of his own pocket because it had nothing to do with his war injury. Bailey's face was literally blown off by a rocket in 1968, while he was in the infantry in Vietnam.

Bailey had gone to a private surgeon when, after three years in a VA hospital, he was told they had done all they could for him.

In their letter of refusal to pay, they had used this amazing sentence: “It is regretted that payment on the above cannot be approved, since the treatment was for a condition other than that of your service-connected disability."

But Monday, after I wrote about Bailey's case, the VA bureaucrats suddenly found new energy, compassion and ability to make a decision. It was an interesting study of a governmental bureaucracy in action. Late in the morning, we were called by Don Monico, VA public relations man.

He couldn't answer questions, but he said we should talk to Vern Rogers, a bigger VA public relations man. Mr. Rogers, in turn, said that he was not speaking for himself. He was speaking for Alton Pruitt, director of the West Side VA Hospital. (In a bureaucracy, it is usually done that way, if possible. That way, nobody is actually speaking, since Mr. Rogers is not speaking for himself, and Mr. Pruitt isn't really speaking.)

Anyway, Rogers-speaking-for-Pruitt said the whole matter was being referred immediately to some mucky-muck board in Washington. "It will go to Washington for an administrative review. And whether or not payment will be made will have to be determined by a board of medical examiners."

This, of course, was laughable. What could there be to review? Bailey got his face blown off. He has four separate 100-per cent disability ratings— and wants to be able to chew food. They can't give him his sight back, his nose back, or the rest of his face. He has to wear a mask in public. So, why is a big review needed to make the decision to let him chew food?

Rogers-speaking-for-Pruitt wasn't sure about that.

But a moment later he said that Mr. Pruitt would actually come on the phone and speak for himself. Which he did. "I was just on the line to Washington," Mr. Pruitt said. "The VA is going to go ahead and pay. We also are going to ask him to come in so we can make a complete assessment of his needs."

Just like that, it shows how efficient a government agency can be — if its inefficiency is suddenly splashed across a newspaper. A year ago, they turned Bailey down flat. He wrote them letters. They pointed him in the direction of a complicated review process.

But after one jolt of unfavorable publicity, they did what they are paid to do in the first place, and they did it within one eight-hour workday.

That still doesn't explain why the VA originally wrote Bailey that his facial surgery "was for a condition other than that of your service-connected disability."

I tried to get an answer.

That letter had come from Jack Pierce, chief of the medical administration service at the West Side VA. But it wasn't signed by Mr. Pierce. It was signed a J. Funches "FOR" Mr. Pierce.

Mr. Pierce wasn't available to discuss it. So we contacted Josephine Funches, who signs letters for Mr. Pierce.

She didn't remember too much about the case. "I think I may have read an article about him in the paper," she said. But you wrote a letter to him.

"I may have signed a letter, but that letter was just sent out over my signature, that's all."

Do you follow this procedure? Mrs. Funches signed the letter for Mr. Pierce. But she says the letter was somebody else's creation. So we tried the public relations man again, Rogers-who-speaks-for-Pruitt.

"That (the letter) was an error on the part of the Veterans Administration," said Mr. Rogers.

Any idiot can see that. The question is, who made the error?

"A clerk made the mistake," said Rogers.

There's your bureaucracy. If what Mr. Rogers says is true, a clerk decided that Bailey's terrible injury wasn't the result of the war. And he typed Mr. Pierce's name. And Mrs. Funches signed the letter for Mr. Pierce.

If that is the way they do things, there must be a lot more Leroy Baileys out there.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


LOOK AT IT THIS WAY

B.T. Kimbrough, February 1, 1974, Managing Editor, Dialogue Magazine

Fiction has certain advantages over real life. Things end neatly in short stories and novels with no "If s" or "and's" and no loose ends which may fit together later or may just go on dangling. I wish the story of Leroy Bailey were a piece of fiction. First of all, the things which happened to him in South Vietnam and the bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration should never happen to a real live human being with hopes and dreams and feelings. But if something terrible goes wrong and those things do happen to someone, there should be some way, as there is in fiction of making it all come out right in the end. Or at least as right as it can when a man has to live with a wound of the kind Leroy Bailey suffered.

The Mike Royko columns about Leroy Bailey, reprinted in this issue of Dialogue leave the impression, inadvertently perhaps, that the terrible part of this story is over and done with. After all, officials of the Veterans Administration have publicly admitted that a mistake was made and that Bailey's disability is service connected. These same officials have promised that everything that could be done for Bailey would now be done.

Accordingly, Bailey was admitted recently to Hines Veterans Hospital for examination. And what did the doctors there recommend? Nothing. There is not, they said, sufficient remaining muscle tissue to enable plastic surgeons to restore Leroy Bailey's face. But Bailey knew that already; and after 40 separate surgical operations in various Veterans hospitals, why shouldn't he know it? The Hines doctors somehow missed the point entirely. No one but they said anything whatever about total restoration of Leroy Bailey's facial features, though wonderful that would be.

No, it is simply that Bailey's private physician thinks he can restore the jaw sufficiently to allow its owner to eat some solid food. This physician actually did some of the preliminary work more than a year ago. It might well have been completed by now if the Veterans Administration had not refused to pay. Even now, all that is required for Doctor Janda's work to proceed is word in writing from the VA that it will pay for the treatment. In other words, all that's needed is a simple authorization; and yet as of February 1 when this was written, it has not been forthcoming. The obvious question is, why not? Why hasn't the VA brought the whole dismal business to an end when the remedy is so simple?

Mr. Royko's columns concerning Bailey reportedly came to the attention of the President [Nixon] who is said to have instructed the VA to do all it could for Bailey and not waste any time about it. Their response was to place Bailey in the hospital for a lot of needless examinations and then to report sadly that it is not medically possible to give this Vietnam veteran a facial restoration. That took the heat off so far as the White House was concerned. If the VA doctors said nothing could be done, why then there was no injustice. A sad business, but no one's fault. Self-serving nonsense! Here is an example of a government bureau caring more for itself than it does for the people it was set up to serve.

How long must Leroy Bailey wait before the Veterans Administration finally gets around to issuing that simple authorization to pay for private treatment? How many other Leroy Bailey's are there—men who have not been so fortunate as to have their causes exposed by the Mike Royko's of this world?

As a postscript to this story, I am proud to say that in spite of all that has happened to him, Leroy Bailey is not a beaten man. No one would blame him if he were embittered and resigned to a life of idleness. But he is neither. He's in school now, this cheerful and compassionate young man, learning the skilled craft of cabinet making. Bumbling bureaucrats have no power against such a man. He will make it in spite of them. In fact, for my money, he already has.