this May 2nd photo, Tom Alligood, a veteran and
certified nursing assistant, speaks during an
interview at the Dorn Veterans Administration Hospital
in Columbia, S.C., Alligood knows all about the bad
press suggesting the nation isnít properly caring
for its veterans. The nurse assistant and former Army
tanker says heís where he needs to be, working at a
Veterans Administration hospital in South Carolina. He
says it saved him.
S.C. - Nursing assistant Tom Alligood wears camouflage
scrubs during his emergency room shifts at the Dorn VA
hospital because he says it helps other veteran patients
realize they've "walked over the same dirt," the
62-year-old former Army tanker says.
doesn't just mean the desert sands of Iraq.
means homelessness, job loss and the mental anguish of being
a long-time military veteran trying to adjust to the trials
of a dog-eat-dog, backstabbing civilian world he says nearly
ate him alive.
need to be around veterans like me. That's where I get my
strength, my 'positiveness' from," says the burly
former first sergeant who now sports a long, gray braid on
says he has found a new mission - working in the sprawling
Columbia VA hospital and helping as many of his one-time
brothers and sisters in arms as he can.
And the VA
is looking for more people like Alligood.
attempt to respond to the crisis of lengthy patient
wait-times and a malfunctioning bureaucracy, VA Secretary
Robert McDonald told Congress the agency hired about 14,000
health care workers last year, including 1,300 doctors and
nursing administrator Ruth Mustard said the hospital hired
an average of 85 nurses as well as 25 licensed practical
nurses and 25 nursing assistants each year for the past two
background as a military veteran is a plus, she says, and
they can always use more like him.
know what it takes to serve and what sacrifices they've
endured and what some of their challenges have been that
have affected their health," the nurse supervisor says.
this May 2nd photo, Ruth Mustard, a nursing supervisor
at the Dorn Veterans Administration Hospital in
Columbia, S.C., speaks about the hospital hiring
veterans as nurses during an interview at the
hospital. Mustard said the hospital hired of 85
nurses, 25 licensed practical nurses and 25 nursing
assistants each year for the past two years.
said he can relate to his veteran-patients because the route
he took from being a VA patient to VA caregiver has been a
leaving the Army, he took a job managing a concrete block
plant. The job was eliminated when the plant was sold.
Falling deep in debt, Alligood said he took to sleeping in
abandoned buildings after losing his car and his home. Life
in homeless shelters didn't sit right, either.
wasn't in the best of shape, mentally and physically,"
he said, his rumbling voice catching. "That was the
lowest I've ever been."
said counselors told him about a VA program that put
homeless veterans into counseling and back to work. He
grabbed the chance to put in 40 hours a week transporting
other veterans around the hallways of the sprawling Dorn VA
Medical Center in wheelchairs and gurneys.
was for $5.15 an hour, minimum wage. But trust me, that
$5.15 meant more to me at that time than anything," he
traversed the hospital's maze of corridors, Alligood said he
made a point of greeting as many people as he could.
banter with other veterans caught Mustard's ear. She told
him the VA would pay for his schooling if he wanted to learn
to become a certified nursing assistant and come back to
help other veterans.
back to school and the Florida native returned to the Dorn
VA Medical Center, where he's logged three years in an
eldercare unit and six years in the emergency department.
has a fabulous rapport," Mustard said.
room nurse Karen Teal says the former first sergeant has a
personal touch that put stressed-out patients
"instantly at ease."
our jewel," Teal says, beaming at her co-worker.
said his days in Iraq and Saudi Arabia help him understand
veterans who might be dealing with post-traumatic stress
disorder. He recounted one veteran he found experiencing a
"flashback" in the ER.
able to tell him, 'I got your back, I got your back,'"
Alligood said, telling how he'd gotten down on the floor
with the ailing veteran, assuring him he'd reached a safe
don't feel that this is a job for me. I feel that this is a
calling, because I get to help so many people,"