‘…they never give up on you’: Veteran praises VA, pilots for saving life

by Great Falls Tribune, Phil Drake

Ralph Pottratz becomes more than a little emotional when asked what he would like people to know about the care he has received over the years from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“If it weren’t for the VA I’d be dead,” the 80-year-old Great Falls resident said recently from his apartment at the Soroptimist Village.

“I cannot say enough good things about them,” he said, choking back tears.

And his praise doesn’t stop there. He also heaps a generous portion of kind words on to
Angel Flight West, a group of volunteer pilots who shuttled him aboard private planes from Great Falls to Salt Lake City for surgery, at no cost. And he adds that one of the pilots drove him from the airport to the hospital.

In times of criticism of the VA and big changes to the system, Ralph’s praise is not unique, one Montana VA official said, but it is very welcome.

Ralph, a widower, said he has been using VA services for at least 12 years.

“They are so efficient and so good, and they never give up on you,” he said. “Everywhere I go with the VA, they treat you so nice. It’s not like you’re a monetary number.”

He said he usually tells people to “get their facts straight,” when he hears complaints, adding they should compare what they pay to the amount they would have to pay if charged a civilian rate.

Ralph rattles off a litany of ailments he has been treated for through the VA, ranging from heart blockage, diabetes, back fusions, sinus problems, colon cancer and eye surgeries.

“Their equipment is first class, and their people are first class,” he said.

And he notes his monthly medications, which would cost up to hundreds of dollars each, come to him for $8 each through the VA.

He served in the U.S. Air Force from 1957 to 1962, or, as he likes to put it: “Four years, five months, 28 days, 12 hours, 36 minutes and 41 seconds” and left as an airman 1st class.

He said he walked out the gate one day at Malmstrom Air Force Base on his way out of the service and walked through the same gate the next day as an employee of Boeing Aircraft Co. to build Minuteman missiles.

Ralph’s story is not just about one veteran, but about the many people and agencies that helped him.

It’s about the California-based Angel Flight West, which coordinated Ralph’s flight. It’s about the retired doctor in Helena who filled his Cessna with gas, all on his own dime, and flew Ralph to Idaho where another Angel Flight volunteer picked him up.

Cheri Cimmarrusti, associate executive director of Angel Flight West, remembers Ralph.
“It just so happens I picked up the phone the day that Ralph called,” she said. “We worked on his flights and helped get him pilots. He was just the sweetest guy.”

She has relatives in Great Falls and said she joked to Ralph that he didn’t have to thank her, but if she ever visited Great Falls again, he owed her an Italian dinner at Borrie’s.

Cimmarrusti said Angel Flight West does about 4,500 flights a year. People who use the service must have some compelling reason for using them such as financial necessity, a condition in which their immune system could be compromised, or live in a rural area where air service is not available.

In 2017, the group has flown 65 missions in Montana, ferrying 60 unique passengers.

She said it is all volunteer, and pilots are not paid, even for gasoline expenses.

“Most pilots feel they are blessed to be a pilot and have the ability to fly and give back to the community,” Cimmarrusti said.

Reg Goodwin is one of them.

The retired doctor has been flying since 1973, when he worked for Cessna in Witchita, Kansas. He said the company gave employees the opportunity to learn to fly.

Goodwin, who moved to Helena in 1975, owns a Cessna 182, which he says is commonly known as “the pickup truck of the sky.” It was built the same year he started working for Cessna.

He, along with pilots Paul Hicks, Louis Rossi and Charles Jones shuttled Ralph from Great Falls to Salt Lake City.

“I’ve had one blessing after another in my life … this feels like a chance to give back to what I’ve received,” Goodwin, 71, said. “And this feels like a chance to give back what I’ve received.”

And he’s had repeat customers. There is a girl from the Hi-Line he has been flying since she was 3, and she is now a college student in Bozeman.

He said some people sleep throughout the flight, some are enchanted by the view and some talk.

“Most people are always frightened and hurting,” Goodwin said. “They are going in for scary stuff and devastated by medical conditions.”

And the job comes with some heartbreak, Goodwin said.

“The children are the hardest – taking little kids to cancer camp when you know they aren’t going to be around in a year or two – yeah, that is tough,” he said, his voice training off.

“Their ability to live in the moment is humbling.”

And Ralph says his story is about the doctors, nurses and other medical staff who have helped him over the years.

Ralph does have some criticism for the VA as he doesn’t try to defend the Veteran’s Choice program, which lets veterans get health care outside the VA system. It has faced criticism from vets who have labeled it as dysfunctional and full of delays.

“Everybody I talk to is disappointed with the Veteran’s Choice program,” he said.

Ralph Pottratz says that every time he gets treated by the VA he’ thanks the doctors and the nurses for helping him.

Kirby Ostler, assistant director for the Montana VA Health Care System, said Veterans Choice is “difficult” to work with. He said it was imposed upon the VA by Congress and “we are trying to wade through it.”

But he was heartened by Ralph’s praise of VA in general. He said on a recent day he received three letters from veterans who had been helped by the VA.

Two praised the service they received.

The other? Not so much.

“People are often complimentary to us,” he said. “It’s actually much-needed in the ever-changing VA we have now with media sources and certain agendas.”

“It makes one question how many strong supporters we have out there.”

Ostler said the Montana VA has been able to improve its ratings. He urges people people to attend town hall meetings and ask questions.

“The more conversations we have, the better,” he said.

In September, the Montana VA Health Care System received a three-star rating for quality, improving its one-star grade from earlier this year. Montana’s federal lawmakers were happy with the news, but some remain guarded in their comments.

Some called it a good first step, and noted that five stars was the top rating.

However, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester noted at the time they need to get treatment to veterans more quickly, but “veterans tell me overwhelmingly that they like the care they receive at VA Montana once they get in the door.”

According to the report, Montana VA had greatly improved mental health continuity of care, health care-associated infections, in-hospital complications, efficient and appropriate health care service admissions and continued treatment. It also improved it overall rating in an inpatient survey.

Ralph says that every time he gets treated by the VA he’s sure to thank the doctors and the nurses for helping him.

“They say ‘Thank you for your service,'” he said. “I say ‘Don’t thank me, thank you.’