I went to see my lifelong friend, Brian Bell. Brian has been dying of Parkinson’s disease for the last 10 years. He has waged a valiant battle against the effects of this disease and soldiered on. That is because Brian was a soldier and served valiantly in Vietnam. The horrors that he saw and endured will die with him, but I do know that he told me that as an infantry machine-gunner he had burned up six machine-gun barrels while there, so I know that he saw a lot of intense action.
Although the aftereffects of the war almost killed him, he eventually calmed down and moved to Soldotna. He worked steadily as an electrician, raised a family and eventually bought a nice house not too far from his beloved Kenai River.
Brian never attained great monetary wealth, but he lived a comfortable life, fished when he could in his small boat and owned a decent truck. I mention this because I want everyone to know that Brian is and was just an ordinary down to earth Alaska family man just like most of the rest of us. Being over 65, he has Medicare and Veterans Affairs benefits.
Now Brian is dying. He is in a warehouse for the dying in Florida because he couldn’t get accommodations with the care he needs in Alaska and apparently can’t get it in Florida either. The VA has him in a room with two other patients in a facility that is run down, crowded, chaotic and staffed with overworked people.
I found Brian in a wheelchair in front of a TV. He recognized me right away, and we began to have a conversation about better times. His thoughts of us together were interrupted by his recurring hallucinations, but then he would come back to reality. His wife had told me earlier that there was a new medicine available for this but that it was very expensive and that the VA wouldn’t pay for it.
As I sat there with him, he moved his leg only slightly to relieve the pain from what he said was a bed sore. We continued our conversation as best we could, but the conversation was continually interrupted by constant waves of pain that brought tears to his eyes. But he never cried out.
As we left, we passed room after room and wheelchair after wheelchair, and I thought, what a horrible place and way to die. Brian, who gave half his sanity and almost his life for this country, doesn’t deserve to go out like this. Nor do any of the other people in that facility.
At one time we were the wealthiest nation in the world. We could have at least provided health care for everyone. We could have provided a decent education to every child and taught them that being a productive member of society was rewarding, perhaps even teach them well enough that one of them could have found a cure for Brian.
Instead, we have fostered greed, lack of empathy and survival of the fittest. This has brought us to a society where thousands of us are incarcerated, uneducated and drug dependent.
The money that should have been used to develop universal health care and universal semi-free education, the two building blocks of a prosperous and happy society, has been siphoned off by the wealthiest among us who have used their money and influence to buy favorable public policy. The 1% now control almost 40% of the nation’s wealth. It is not bad that they are wealthy, but it seems that we have developed a segment of society that thinks that they are entitled, that they owe nothing to the employees and government that makes their wealth possible. In seeking to maximize quarterly profits, corporations reward their employees who develop schemes that prey on the weak and vulnerable.
President Trump personifies this attitude of entitlement. The “conservative” Republican Party now supports more deficit spending during the longest economic expansion ever. Most Republicans are consciously choosing to protect their hold on power rather than stand up for what is fair and morally right.
If we do not as a nation soon develop a conscience and strive to recapture our moral character, then I see only sadness and turmoil in our future. It is too late for Brian. I just hope that is not too late for the future generations to turn things around.
Ed Linkous lives in Fairbanks. He served on the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly from 1987 to 1989.