SEMINOLE — Veterans sat along the window ledge, waiting.
Some brought private therapists or caseworkers along to help tell their stories about medical care at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals. Some arrived on crutches or hobbled around with canes. Some dressed in crisp uniforms, gazing beyond with wrinkled faces.
The group was answering a call from U.S. Rep. David Jolly, who gave 180 veterans the opportunity Tuesday to describe their struggles with obtaining VA medical care. The VA has faced withering criticism in recent months amid allegations of poor care, wrongful deaths, secret waiting lists and delays in patient care across the country.
Throughout the day, Jolly met with several veterans individually in his Seminole office.
Tice Ridley, founder of the Circle of Veterans based in Dade City, served in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Army, he told Jolly, does not offer alternative therapies to soldiers suffering from the condition. "The Army doesn't understand PTSD," Ridley said.
He brought Darlene Williams, a local psychologist he's been working with outside of the VA.
If soldiers don't feel like they can get good care at the VA, they should be able to go somewhere else, she said.
The Army, she said, employs a generic treatment strategy for PTSD that often involves "exposure therapy," which includes getting them to relive the traumatic experiences as a way to move past them.
"It might be that they don't go outside the handbook, as is the case with bureaucracies," Jolly said.
Not all soldiers can handle that type of therapy, Ridley said, adding that hypnosis has worked for him.
Jolly nodded and promised he would look into it when he returned to the Capitol. Throughout the day, his staff asked veterans to fill out a survey detailing their experiences with the VA. Jolly's office said he can pinpoint pressing issues once the data have been counted and analyzed.
There was no shortage of horror stories.
Alvin Kalicki was 18 years old when he served in World War II. Ten days after the United States decimated Nagasaki and Hiroshima with two atomic bombs, Kalicki was sent into the radiation-drenched cities, he said. No gloves, no protective mask. Just wandering the ruins on cleanup duty.
"It was barren," Kalicki, now 89, recalled Tuesday. "The buildings were flattened. There was a lot of rubbish and trash lying around. There were bodies scattered everywhere. It smelled like I was walking through a Dumpster."
Shortly after, Kalicki of Pinellas Park got searing headaches. He couldn't focus. He vomited and experienced chest pains.
Later in life, he developed throat and prostate cancer. So he applied for compensation in 2009 to help pay medical bills. He said he still hasn't received help from the VA.
"A lot of these World War II guys aren't here anymore," said his son Kevin Kalicki, "but I think they should get priority. I think the VA should stay open later. I think they need more employees."
Derek Peeples, 25, said he hasn't been able to walk on his own since 2008. The Largo resident suffered five injuries serving in the Navy and paid $449 for a plastic crutch that he fits under his right knee. Asking for surgery, he was told by a naval hospital that treatment "would be too much of an expense issue."
Mark Escalante and Ricardo Nieves, who served in the Army during Operation Desert Storm, hobbled into the lobby on crutches.
After the service, Nieves worked for Homeland Security until he slipped on a boat and developed avascular necrosis, a degenerative disease that kills bone tissue. When he lost the ability to walk, he lost his job. Then he lost his wife, and then his car.
Desperate, he asked the VA in Fort Lauderdale for help but got none. Because of his condition, whenever he moves, Nieves feels a ring of pain traveling from his groin to the back of his right hip. He describes the sensation as "walking on the tip of a knife" and takes medication for depression. He's in Tampa, waiting for a consultation date at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center in Seminole.
He'll be waiting until July 15.
For Escalante and Nieves, it's easier to rewind the clock about 25 years, when they were both young privates, watching out for each other. During one of their first navigation drills, Nieves couldn't speak English well, and they got lost in the woods for hours.
"It was Super Bowl Sunday, and they had to fire up the helicopters to find us," Escalante said, motioning to his buddy. "Remember that?"
"Yeah," Nieves said, laughing. "It was your fault."
Zack Peterson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446.