The way John McCain tells it, the injuries he suffered at the hands of his captors in Vietnam would have ended his career as a Navy pilot were it not for the help of physical therapist Diane Rauch. And that’s basically true: after months of painful treatment, he was well enough to pass his medical screening. But that leaves out an interesting part of the story. In his biography of McCain, Robert Timberg details the treatment McCain received at two naval hospitals. Navy doctors in Maryland were, in fact, McCain’s first physical therapists, but they offered a bleak prognosis. Fortunately for McCain, the story of his imprisonment and torture was so widely known that strangers from across the country offered assistance. One of those strangers was Rauch, who provided her services at no charge.
As a vignette, it’s charming–a POW, just released from a long and brutal stretch in captivity, finally stumbling upon some good fortune. But it’s hardly a working model for veterans’ health services. Most vets, after all, need government-provided treatment for the rest of their lives–first, like McCain, at military hospitals and then, unlike McCain, at VA facilities.
Thirty-five years after McCain’s return to the United States, the Veterans Health Administration has undergone a sea change. Once a national embarrassment, it is now among the highest-functioning public bureaucracies. In fact, it’s the best health system, public or private, in the country. (Military hospitals are a different story altogether, managed not by the Veterans Administration but by the armed services. To many, the words “military hospital” evoke images of the Soviet-style decay uncovered by journalists at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.)