Thanks of a Grateful Nation Al Slaton By Montgomery Cottier Alvin D. Slaton was a 46-year-old exconvict in 1978, a tall, fleshy man with a string of convictions on his record ranging from armed robbery to murder. He had the longtime inmate’s ingrained habit of sitting, legs crossed at the knees and back hunched over, curled up and selfcontained. His eyes continuously roamed, darted, never quite at rest. Al Slaton, newly-hired nurse’s aide assigned to train at Building 91 of the Waco Veteran’s Administration Medical Facility, also had the longtime convict’s inner sense that this time he’d better not louse it up. Time was slipping steadily away, and new starts didn’t come as easily at 46 as they had at 20 or 30. To Slaton, one of the most important elements of not messing up, of getting along on the job, was not making waves. They taught you a lot about that in prison, and, if you lived, you learned that while it was true that the squeaky wheel is the one which receives the attention, the scrap yards are full of the remains of wheels which squeaked once too often. But there was something inside Slaton which made it impossible for him to watch indifferently an all-too-frequent occurrence: employees of the V.A. hospital the place that Slaton had come to for steady, respectable employment, a haven from his past and its casual brutality were beating patients. As a result of watching those beatings and trying to stop them, Slaton initiated a major inves Montgomery Cottier is a free-lance writer and journalism graduate student at the University of Texas. tigation at the V.A. hospital in Waco, an investigation which revealed the kind of horror stories which come from too many veterans’ facilities. It is a story with a beginning and a middle, but no end. * * * “I was less than a week on the job,” Slaton recalls, “training on Building 91, when the first incident occurred.” It was Aug. 28, 1978. An ordinary day, with what to everyone but Slaton were ordinary events. An elderly man, long confined to a wheelchair, bound by cloth restraints during the day, and tied to his mattress at night, periodically began to writhe and pull at his confinings, trying once again to rise on legs that would never again carry him. Slaton wondered how the staff would cope with the matter. He soon found out. One of the nurse’s aides, distracted from the almost endless paperwork, strode up to the old man and delivered a good, swift blow to his head. The struggling and writhing stopped. “I felt that blow,” says Slaton. “I was beaten in prison, and I was knocked around and hung from the wall by handcuffs on my wrists.” Slaton’s wrists bear deep scars, not across the insides, where an attempted suicide would have placed them, but across the backs of the wrists, where the weight of the man’s body would have caused the cuffs to dig in and finally cut the flesh. “There was nothing I could do about it in prison,” Slaton adds. “But this was different. The only crime this old patient had committed was to become sick and feeble, and he was in this hospital because somewhere along the line he had served his country.” Later, two mare acts of violence against the old man occurred. After the third incident, in September 1978, SlatOn was transferred from Building 91 to Building 92. Like many of the other buildings at the sprawling V.A. hospital, built in 1932 and oriented primarily toward psychiatric care, Building 92 is a large brick structure housing psychiatric patients behind heavy doors, and windows dimmed by thick steel mesh. Some 1,400 staff members, operating on a budget of $2 million annually, handle approximately 1,900 patients at the Waco facility. In addition, an estimated 90,000 outpatients visit each year. A few days after Slaton’s transfer, he approached his instructor, Ann Davidson, R.N., and told her of the beatings he had witnessed in the old building. She suggested that Slaton report the matter to Faye M. Roach, associate chief of nursing, as specified in the official hospital policy manual. Later that day, Slaton saw Roach. After listening to his story, she called Chief of Nursing Services Mary Haynie, and told her that Slaton was sitting in her office and would like to make a patient abuse report. Mrs. Roach told Slaton that Haynie would be in touch with him. “About two or three weeks later,” ac cording to Slaton’s affidavit in the sub sequent V.A. investigation, “I saw Faye Roach in the hospital canteen and she asked me what had ever happened on the abuse incident. I told her I didn’t know, THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15
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