Veterinary clinic owner pays heavy price for military service

Financial recovery elusive following deployment

March 5, 2012 (published)
By Phyllis DeGioia

Photo courtesy of Dr. Daniel Cardosa
While deployed with the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2005, Dr. Daniel Cardosa, aided by a local farmer, administers deworming medicine to a goat. A veterinary clinic owner in Rhode Island, Cardosa has yet to recover financially from business lost during his 15-month tour of duty. He's been back for six years.
Before Dr. Daniel Cardosa Jr. was called away to Iraq to serve in the U.S. Army in early 2005, business was good at Big River Veterinary Services, the clinic he owns with his wife, Debbie, in West Greenwich, R.I.

Things changed after he left. Some clients stayed with the clinic, but many did not. Debbie, the office manager, kept the bad news to herself. The support group she belonged to counseled her not to tell her husband about the financial problems for his own safety.

“If you worry over there, you can get killed because you’re not paying attention,” Cardosa explained. “So I didn't know until I got home how bad it was. She told me she used to go to bed every night crying because everything we worked for was disappearing. She was afraid to tell me anything bad because she was worried I might be killed while worrying.” 

It wasn’t until he came home in April 2006 that Cardosa learned that the clinic lost significant income during his 15-month absence. Keeping everything afloat required biting into the couple’s personal savings.

“The difference comes out of your life savings, so in part I financed my own deployment,” said Cardosa, who was deployed at age 52. “It took me 25 years to save that money and I don't have another 25 years.”

The tough economy of the past four years has been challenging for many veterinarians but anecdotal reports suggest that those returning from military deployment have exponentially worse financial difficulties than those who haven’t had to leave their practices for a long period.

Even in vibrant economic times, after being absent for a tour of military duty, a clinic owner may find that his or her practice and income are shadows of what they were before deployment, Cardosa observed.

“When the practice owner is gone, people just leave in droves. I don't know what the psychology of that is,” he said. “... Some clients won't come in when they can't see me, or they go elsewhere. I think that's true with many practices.” 

Cardosa served in the military twice before being deployed to Iraq, but he didn’t own a clinic at the time. His first service period came at the close of the Vietnam War, from 1975 to 1978. He served again from 1992 to 1995. Both times, he was stationed in the United States. He was in the reserves when deployed to Iraq.

Recently, Cardosa expressed on a message board of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession, how difficult it is for a service person’s solo veterinary practice to flourish following deployment.

Cardosa’s comment was a response to another veteran who recounted financial difficulties so severe that he considered closing his private practice and going back to the military full-time.

“I know firsthand how it is. I am lucky that I am still keeping my head above water but barely,” Cardosa wrote to his colleague. “Rebuilding after deployment is difficult. I have been home six years now and am still trying to rebuild. It is a long, slow, painful process, especially knowing it wasn't your fault.”  

Cardosa suspected as he headed to Iraq that things might go sour with the business. Someone had recommended that he sell the clinic before he departed, predicting that it would be worth less after he left. He did not have time to act on that advice because he was given only six weeks’ notice before deployment. 

“That’s not enough time to get your affairs in order. I thought about it, and thought my wife might have to sell it while I was gone,” Cardosa said.

Some members of VIN offered to help fill in while he was away. However, the volunteers were from other states and could not obtain temporary Rhode Island veterinary licenses. According to Rhode Island Department of Health spokesman Peter Hanney, temporary licenses are issued only for emergencies such as natural disasters.

Cardosa hired a veterinarian to serve in his stead, then reported for duty. He was supposed to be one of 125 reservists reporting but only 27 showed up. Of those, 18 were found fit for duty. Cardosa was among them.

In Iraq, he was assigned to civil affairs. That entailed work such as caring for farm animals, working with the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Agriculture and helping with public-health projects such as eradicating Brucellosis. “In Iraq, it’s all run by the state. We were helping to change from a social program to free enterprise and help vets,” Cardosa recounted. “It is an agricultural society; not a lot of pets but mostly poultry, cows, sheep, goats and water buffalo.”

That may sound pleasantly bucolic but the assignment was by no means safe. “Iraq was an unconventional war,” he explained. “I had several friends in the Veterinary Corps who wanted to accompany me on some missions but the Veterinary Corps commander in the Area of Operations denied the request because it was deemed too dangerous for veterinarians to go out on these missions. There was no ‘safe’ rear. Everywhere was the front. The enemy wore no uniforms and were indistinguishable from peaceful civilians.”

Cardosa said he participated in missions unrelated to veterinary medicine, as well, and accompanied units on patrols, occasionally while looking for insurgents or insurgent activity. The Army offered to award Cardosa the Combat Action Badge – twice – and both times he refused it.

“I did not serve for glory and don't want the recognition of the Combat Action Badge. I don't think it was meant for soldiers like me,” he said.

When he came home, Cardosa initially was optimistic that his practice would rebuild quickly. “You think when you come back it will go back to normal, but (a) practice doesn't come back that quickly; it's very slow,” he said.

He kept full-time the veterinarian he’d hired to fill in while he was away. “I didn't want to be like the government, use people till you’re done with them then toss them away. And after Iraq it is impossible for me to go back to working alone,” Cardosa said.

But compounding the financial problems caused by his absence, the national economy slid into its worst recession in 80 years.

Like the fellow veteran and clinic owner on VIN who posted about his difficulties, Cardosa has considered changing directions.”I still think about quitting every day since I’ve been back,” he said “... The thing is, I don't know what else I could do. I don't think I could be an employee anymore after owning a practice for 17 years. I keep saying ‘I should sell this, I gotta get out,’ but I don't because I can't make up my mind about what to do once I'm out.”

One idea he had was to complete a residency in surgery to become a specialist. Through the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists, Cardosa has a practitioner designation of MACVSc for small animal surgery. Cardosa created the North American Academy of Veterinary Orthopedic Surgery, modeled after the Australian college. The academy is the first professional veterinary organization in the United States to offer experience-based credentialing in a specific veterinary discipline.

However, although Cardosa has tried for 10 years, he’s been unable to advance his training by getting into a surgical residency program.

He’s left with the impression that his military service is not viewed as an asset or valuable experience because each time he applied to a program, he was turned down at least in part because he hasn’t completed an internship. Yet, an internship is not an absolute requirement. The American College of Veterinary Surgeons constitution names as a prerequisite a one-year internship or equivalent practice experience.

The problem is, Cardosa said, “They never define ‘acceptable experience.’ ” While serving in the Army, “We didn't just go out with weapons, we worked with people from the State Department, and the ministries of Health and Agriculture,” he said. “How many interns write public-health programs that impact entire nations? I believe military service should count for something more than that of an internship. Where would our country be if no one decided to serve?”   

What disturbed Cardosa the most was seeing other small-business owners having similar problems following deployment, and realizing the problem was not limited to the veterinary profession. He saw veterans go bankrupt and lose their businesses.

By late 2007, when he had been home for nearly two years, his clinic was still losing money but clients and income were coming back. At that point, Cardosa decided to ask the government for help for returning veterans. When he approached his congressman and senator, he said they responded that they did not think it was fair to use taxpayer money for private-sector businesses.

That request for help came one year before the government bank bailout in 2008. Cardosa pointed out that some of the bank executive bonuses paid with bailout money were more than veterinarians would earn in their lifetime. The VIN News Service contacted the offices of Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed and U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin on Friday seeking their comments on Cardosa's 2007 request. Chip Unruh, a spokesman for Sen. Reed, said the office likely had a record of the meeting and he would look it up but he did not provide details as of late Monday. Langevin's office did not return the phone call.

Cardosa said he regrets that his military service cost him so much financially: His life savings is gone just a few years before he should have been able to retire. 

“The injustice of it all is that you sacrificed for your country, and then you sacrificed more when you got home,” he said.

Nonetheless, Cardosa doesn’t regret his military service overall. 

“I still think it was the right thing to do,” he said. “I don't know that I would do things differently. I took an oath to serve my country and I had to do what I said I would, otherwise I would not be able to live with myself.”

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