“A Shared History”: Why the VA Means So Much to Veterans and Staff

Categories: VA, District 9, The Insider

We recently visited the St. Louis VA hospital to sit down with a few VA employees. Here's what we found:

AFGE Serves as a Refuge for Veterans

“Without AFGE, I’d be in the emergency room,” declared James Totten, a Gulf War veteran and volunteer at AFGE Local 96. He stands tall and proud with his shoulders back, evidence of his 15 years in the Army’s Defense Courier Service and Central Special Operation Command.

His desk is the first thing you see when you walk into the AFGE union office on the third floor of the John Cochran VA Hospital in the heart of St. Louis. The next thing you see is his warm smile. Despite the fact that his service left him disabled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other medical conditions, Totten’s personality warms the room.

His resilience lies with the 2,400 employees Local 96 represents and the veterans he serves at the VA each day. They are what keep him going.

“I am so happy I volunteer. Without AFGE, I’d be all over the place,” he explains. “It gives me something to do to take my mind off things. And I often have a shared history with my brothers and sisters at AFGE.”

The St. Louis VA hospital is his refuge. He works there. He receives his health care there. He hangs out with other veterans there. He feels right at home as about 60 percent of the 2,400 employees at the hospital are also veterans. All his doctors know him. He can see his primary care doctor, therapist, and psychologist all in one day.

Totten’s union duties run the gamut from taking minutes of meetings to handling employees’ grievances. He’s also the Local’s legislative and political coordinator, something he’s very proud of. 

“They give you a sense of comradery I don’t get anywhere else,” he said. “I wouldn’t change my health care for the world.” 

His deep understanding of the VA’s mission is priceless for Local 96. After he got out of the Army, he went to work for the VA, first at a Florida VA hospital and then the St. Louis VA hospital. He started his volunteer work at AFGE after his retirement from the VA and has been a permanent fixture ever since.

VA Provides Spiritual Care

At the VA hospital in St. Louis, seven full-time chaplains, four part-time chaplains, and four resident chaplains are on-hand to provide spiritual care to veterans, their families, and staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

One of those chaplains is AFGE member William Galyon. He’s been at the St. Louis VA hospital for nearly 20 years, but he is just as passionate about his work as he was the moment he first walked through the doors.

Every day he goes from room to room, bed to bed, gently asking patients if there is anything he can do.

His kind, big eyes get brighter as he tells every patient that he, too, is a veteran. “They feel comfortable knowing that,” he explains, clutching his badge with a sense of pride and compassion. He had proudly served in the Air Force, the Air National Guard, the Air Force Reserve, and the Army. He knows veterans; he is one.

Sometimes patients asked to be baptized by him, some ask to pray together, and others find comfort in just having someone to talk to. Despite the wide variety of spiritual backgrounds of VA patients, Chaplain Galyon loves finding the ability to connect with each of them on a human level. When asked about his most successful conversation topics that unifies veterans from all walks of life, a smile spreads across his face: “Dogs,” he grins.

His work is a true testament to the VA’s much-praised holistic approach to care that veterans can’t find anywhere else.

“I’ve been proud to serve my country in the military and now the veteran population,” Chaplain Galyon reflects.

VA Employees Host a Christmas Dinner for Veterans Every Year

The holidays often bring joy; it’s that time of year when friends and family get together to and enjoy delicious meals and conversations.

But what if you don’t have your family to celebrate with? What if you are a veteran staying at a hospital and no one is visiting? Well, if you receive care at the St. Louis VA hospital, there will be a Christmas party for you.

Employees at St. Louis VA have been hosting a Christmas dinner for veterans at the hospital for more than a decade, not because it’s part of their job duties, but because they want to give back to their patients who have fought so hard for this country.

“I’ve already started planning,” Donna Sherrill-McGaughy, a registered nurse and an AFGE member, told us in July. She has worked at the VA for more than 18 years, where now she does IV therapy and reviews policy procedures, often revamping and researching how other VA hospitals work to ensure the veterans in St. Louis get the best care possible.

Sherrill-McGaughy heads up the party planning, including a live band that veterans enjoy while eating their hot meal and dessert. Veterans will also receive a gift, usually something small and useful like ear phones, a mug, or a checkers board.

The holiday party used to be just a small affair where veterans shared sandwiches and conversations, but when Sherrill-McGaughy took over 10 years ago, she wanted to carry on the legacy of the other dedicated VA nurses that came before her. And add a hot meal instead of just sandwiches. And the rest is history.

“We try to show them we appreciate them. We try to honor them. It’s meaningful for me,” Sherrill-McGaughy concludes.

What We Learned

Amid talks VA hospital shut downs and sending wounded warriors to for-profit private hospitals, few really understand the role the VA, and the care and experience veterans receive at VA hospitals.

These hospitals are indeed a community where they find must-needed camaraderie and support among fellow veterans.

Share Your Story

Do you have a story about your beloved VA to share? Send it to us at www.afge.org/mystory.

Visit www.afge.org to learn more about AFGE’s work to provide the best care to veterans.

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