For Sgt. Tom Bates, fighting for freedom isn’t a newfound passion—it’s in his blood. “I come from a long line of veterans and my father was a police officer. We’ve always been very community-oriented and big on American values like freedom.”
After fighting for his country overseas, Bates now uses his personal story—and his GLA training—to advocate on behalf of more health care options for veterans.
A Long, Rough Ride
When Bates returned home from his last deployment in 2009, he faced a new challenge—navigating the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“It’s been a long, rough ride with the VA since I got out of the military in 2009,” he told GLA.
Bates survived four IED explosions while in Iraq and Afghanistan. While he escaped external injuries, the invisible ones were severe.
Bates’ wife, Libby, told 60 Minutes her husband came home drastically different. “I thought, ‘Something is not absolutely right here. Something’s going on,’” she said. “He would look at me and say, ‘If it wasn’t for you, I would end it all right now.’”
When Bates tried to get help from the VA, he endured a series of misdiagnoses and failed treatments. “Going through the VA system is a patchwork thing,” he said. “They patch the sinking ship as best they can and send you on your way.”
Stepping Outside the VA
Frustrated with the lack of progress, Bates took matters into his own hands. “I did a lot of studying and research on my own as far as different cognitive and brain conditions because I had such a rapid decline that doctors couldn’t explain,” he said.
Bates eventually found a study on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in athletes and recognized the symptoms, so he contacted the team behind the research.
“I bugged the doctor and other researchers that were doing the same research and finally piqued their interest,” he said. “They were interested in looking at veterans, so we crafted new criteria for a study for veterans and I was able to take part in it.” Bates even recruited a friend facing similar symptoms to join him in the study.
The CTE study – and the VA Choice program — have proved invaluable as Bates has tried to figure out the best treatments. Bates has been lucky enough to be able to use the VA Choice program to see private doctors.
“Because my condition is such an anomaly and basically no one knows how to handle it and having such a large variety of issues stemming from it, I’ve used the VA Choice program to help with a lot of different stuff,” he said.
The Power of Choice
The Bates live in rural Ohio. Without the option to see private doctors, Bates would spend a significant amount of time traveling to doctor’s appointments.
“The main VA hospital doesn’t do liver biopsies, so we had to go through VA Choice for that,” he said. “The nearest one that does carpal tunnel is a three-hour drive to get to.”
Using the VA Choice program hasn’t just meant more convenient appointments—it’s meant better treatment.
“The Army missed my pituitary gland damage,” Bats said. “Two VA hospitals missed it too. They found it by accident and never reported it to me. I found it myself when I was going through my own medical records.”
Unfortunately, the VA Choice program is limited. Bates and his wife are still paying for treatment that should be covered. “That’s quite common, in this area especially,” Bates said. “I personally pay out of pocket for an endocrinologist.”
“When you go through endocrinology, you have to have your hormones and blood tested constantly,” he explained. “For a while the only VA facility that did endocrinology was in Cleveland. That’s two hours away. I paid entirely out of pocket for those visits.”
Sharing His Story
Bates’ experience and his passion for better health care for veterans is what interested him in Grassroots Leadership Academy’s training. He had already been active in politics when he found the program and decided to sign up.
He completed the first two levels of GLA’s certification programs and has been using the skills he honed during training in his fight to give veterans more control over their own health care decisions.
“We’ve been using the GLA trainings to develop how to share my story with CTE to push for better health care for veterans,” Bates said. He’s shared his story at events and was even featured on 60 Minutes.
Bates said GLA is a good option for Americans who want to advocate for freedom. “If you’re really wanting to get into activism, it’s great for building your base knowledge and helping expand it,” he said. “It’s a good foot in the door for figuring out what you need to do and how to do it correctly.”
Click the video below to see more of Tom’s story, as featured in CBS’s 60 Minutes.