Justin Eck, 34, served in the Oklahoma National Guard for twelve years. He enlisted in 2000, when he was seventeen. He served as a forward observer for field artillery, which meant he was in front of the troops as he directed artillery fire onto targets.
Upon enlisting, the benefits that were “promised” to Eck included educational assistance through the G.I. Bill, and from the Oklahoma National Guard Tuition Assistance program. Eck attended the Oklahoma City branch of Oklahoma State University, trying to earn some credits through basic courses.
On three different occasions, he fought with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, seeking to have his tuition paid.
“Every month I had to send my verification of enrollment in school to the VA so that I could get it covered,” Eck said. “Each time, the lady in the office would say that there was no record of mine or that she couldn’t find my files.”
The first two times the VA did not cover anything at all, and the third time they did not cover everything they said they would. “Next thing I know I get a letter of having to pay $3300 for my tuition, which really put me and my family back financially,” he said.
In 2005, Eck started a new job working at the TA truck stop in Oklahoma City off, just off Morgan Road. On his third day on the job, he got a call asking if he could volunteer to help those impacted from Hurricane Katrina. “I told them I couldn’t go. I had just started and it was only my third day,” Eck said. “Then half an hour later, I get a call back saying that since there weren’t enough volunteers, the Oklahoma National Guard made it mandatory for everyone to go down there. I was gone for two months.”
When he was stationed in Iraq in 2011, Eck suffered an injury in his lower back. He was given a mission to get all equipment signed out to different units, and take items from those units so property books were clear. He had signed nineteen million dollars worth of equipment.
“I was twisting and reaching up for computers and bending down to place them in shipping containers all day. The next day, I could barely get out of bed,” Eck said. He was taken to one of the troop medical clinics in Baghdad, the clinic had only one nurse.
“The nurse called a doctor and ‘treated me’ over the phone. The doctor said, ‘give him whatever you got,’ and the nurse gave me Lortabs, and other muscle relaxers.” Once Eck was transferred to a hospital, all he got were sleeping pills.
Eck found out he had a herniated lumbar disc. He also found out he suffers from Spinal Stenosis, which had never been diagnosed.
“It runs in my family,” he said. “But I would have never known I had Spinal Stenosis had I not injured my back.”
Eck had the injury in the L4-L5 segments of his spine, which are the two lowest segments of the spine and the most common place for a disc to be herniated. The Spinal Stenosis also happened to be in his L4-L5 segments. The doctors at the VA hospital in Oklahoma told Eck that the hernia was caused by the Spinal Stenosis.
“They said they weren’t going to treat me for something I already had. I didn’t even know I had Spinal Stenosis my whole life. They just didn’t want to pay for my treatment,” he said.
Every time Eck went to the VA hospital, the doctors tried to get him to take a test of AIDS, Hepatitis, and other “unnecessary tests.”
“I don’t know why they kept avoiding treating me. They would ask multiple times and when I would say, ‘I just want you to treat my back’ they would say, ‘what’s wrong with your back?’” Eck said.
One doctor even asked him what was wrong and immediately walked out of the room with his file before he could answer.
“There was one doctor who said he was so booked, he could see patients only once a year,” Eck said. “He just lied so I couldn’t see him. But you can’t do that actually, you have to see patients at least once a year.” It got to a point where Eck couldn’t take it anymore, and one day, threatened to kill the doctor.
“I was working at Lowe’s when I got the call,” Eck’s wife, Emily, said. “The lady at the VA hospital said, ‘Hello, Mrs. Eck, your husband is here and just threatened to kill one of our doctors.”
Shocked, Emily said she was on her way, and told the lady “You do know he has PTSD right?” Emily assumed the diagnosis had been noted in her husband’s file.
The woman at the hospital responded, “Oh, he does?”
Eventually, Eck did get treated, but only for his PTSD.
“I got to take some classes to treat my PTSD and depression and even had a shrink,” he said. He was prescribed Zoloft, which worked best to treat his PTSD. “The only way for the VA to treat you is if you threaten to kill somebody,” Eck says.
The last time Eck was in the hospital, he passed a kidney stone. “We went to the ER at three in the afternoon and didn’t get called in until two in the morning,” Emily said. “We were the only ones in the waiting room around that time and when we finally got called in, it only took twenty, thirty minutes.”
Eck says he can’t bend over or turn his body, and will sometimes collapse randomly due to his lower back. All he can do now is sit until he gets treated. “I can’t sit around on my butt all day,” he said.
The VA did not prescribe opioids to treat his pain, due to the “addiction in the state.” He said the VA hasn’t prescribed opioids since 2012.
When Eck was in the National Guard, he drove buses on military bases. He’s had a bus driver’s license for ten years now and has looked into bus driving for the Embark bus line in Oklahoma City. “There is a program, I don’t know the name of it, but it allows you to transfer your military experience to civilian life,” Eck says.
However, he has been unable to receive a Commercial Driver’s License, which is required to work for Embark. “I don’t know why they won’t let me get one. I guess ten years experience is not enough.”
If he was working, his pay would be $15.80 per hour.
Eck has been on disability since 2012 and receives $1800 a month. “I don’t need a disability check. I just need to work. If I was bus driving, I’d be making more than $1800 a month.”
Eck has been on a two year waiting list to see an orthopedic surgeon at the VA, but he doesn’t want to wait any longer.
All he needs is a referral from his primary physician to the Laser Spine Institute in Oklahoma City, for a consultation to see if he even qualifies for surgery. The physical therapist at the VA won’t write him a referral, however. “He would tell me ‘Oh, no, you’re fine. Go away’,” Eck said.
“The surgery costs about $60,000. In the three years I’ve been on disability, I’ve received $75,600. I could’ve had that paid off by now,” he said.
“None of my peers ever had to deal with any of these problems. I’m the one that just slipped through the cracks.”
Today, Eck stays at home with the kids while his wife works.
“It’s been hard on our marriage,” Emily said. “With his PTSD, he can’t remember anything. He sometimes forgets to pick up the kids from school or take them to doctor appointments or to schedule his own appointments. The kids are sometimes afraid to bother or upset dad, so when I get home they all come running to me.”
Eck is just one of many veterans who have not gotten “proper” or “any” assistance from the government. He hopes to get the help he knows he deserves and soon. “We should be giving as much money to the VA to fix soldiers as fast as possible,” he said. “No one should have to wait so long to get help that is promised.”