Wednesday, July 04, 2007
Not long after I got here I decided to try to help other veterans while I learned to help myself in dealing with the VA and Social Security Administrations. I was 45 back then and freshly ejected from a long and fairly rewarding military career. Continuing to serve on some level seemed like a good thing, but I think if I knew then what I know now, I probably would have passed on the "big boat" thing. Sure, it can be rewarding, and it mostly is I guess, but days like today come along and wreck me for weeks at a time. It’s heart breaking.
I just received an email from a veteran’s wife telling me that her husband had just died. She didn’t know what to do. All he told her was to contact me. On a side note, some of these guys are woefully prepared for their death, no matter how sick they are. You'd think they'd know better, but they seem to go into a state of denial. Just the same, this particular veteran and I had been working together for the past year trying to get the Veterans Administration to grant him compensation and medical care for the hypertension and cardiovascular disease that had befallen his body. He was a very sick man. Indeed, its what killed him. He died this morning of a heart attack.
Years ago he had already been granted service connection for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition resulting from his experiences in combat. A common physical manifestation of PTSD, which is basically a mental condition characterized by almost continuous anxiety, is hypertension that commonly leads to cardiovascular disease. That’s exactly what happened to this gentleman, and that’s exactly what he was, a very fine gentleman.
I helped him put together a strong case for service connection for his cardiovascular condition as secondary to his PTSD. Keep in mind that to win a favorable decision for VA disability all a veteran is supposed to have to do is prove to the reasonable doubt level. In his case, I had helped him to acquire two strong medical opinions from his physicians stating that his heart disease had been either caused by or exacerbated by the stress of his PTSD. On top of that I had him submit as evidence a VA case precedent wherein a Board of Veterans Appeals judge had granted hypertensive heart disease to another PTSD veteran, a fellow whose condition exactly mirrored my man’s.
So here’s the maddening thing. The VA still denied his claim. The raters who make these kinds of whimsical decisions do so seemingly as if they simply throw a dice with yes’s and no’s on all the facets instead of numbers. Whichever comes up is the one they go with, but lately it seems that there are more no’s than yes’s on their dice. Do I really believe this? In the capricious nature of their decision-making, yes I do, and fervently so. It’s caused me to think of the people who work in that building with great enmity and spite. In fact, I feel the bile rise and my teeth grit even as I write this.
For veterans with mental conditions like PTSD or other serious emotional issues, the predictably adversarial nature of the VA responses causes even more anxiety and angst. I’ve seen some of these gents become extremely sick; some even worry so much over their "fight" with the "evil" VA to the point of having actual anxiety and heart attacks.
That exact thing happened to one of my vets just two months ago. His ever-increasing anxiety put him in the hospital where he went into de-fib. To bring him back required two shocks of the paddles before his heart returned to a normal beating rhythm. If a buddy hadn’t taken him to the hospital while there was still time he would have died in bed. And guess what it was that caused that particular anxiety attack—that’s right, he was in the middle of a "fight" with "our friend" that nefarious entity we all call the VA.
The maddening thing is that sometimes it doesn’t matter how strong the evidence, how right the veteran is or how wrong the raters are, the VA system digs in its bureaucratic heels and fights it out to the bitter end.
Its awful, because these vets with these crippling mental conditions are not equipped to fight against the VA monsters. As I said, the responses these fellows read in these decision letters by the VA are convoluted and to a mentally impaired person they also come across as mean. I’ve had some of these guys call me at home either screaming their frustrations out at me, or so dejected that they were very near crying. Most of their over-reactions are simply due to the anxiety and depression of their conditions, but there are times when it seems as if the VA knowingly writes to provoke these kinds of responses. What else am I to think?
And if a veteran dies midway through the appeals process the VA simply throws out the case, as if it never existed in the first place. That means the possibility exists that the wife and children will get no follow on benefit, even if the decision would have eventually gone in favor of the appellant. It only makes vicious sense, since the malicious VA is the organization that writes these heartless rules. Like I tell my guys, "their money—their rules."
Pretty much all of the above happened to my now deceased veteran buddy; now freshly passed on, I’m absolutely sure due to the stress of his PTSD and PTSD-caused heart condition. Over the months he’s called and emailed me over some new frightening VA letter that he had no idea how to respond to. I had to calm him down and explain "the VA ways" to him—that the idiocy he was reading was normal and nothing to worry about. And sure enough, he could not survive the appeals process--the stress of it likely helped kill him. And now that he's gone, everything we've been through is as if it never happened.
I always fret about that, because these fellows tend to worry themselves sick to the point of fatality over this stuff, no matter how much I try to reassure them. It makes me wonder how many good men the VA has literally worried to death.
When I lose one, like I did today, it fairly well takes the stuffings out of me. I get so sad that I can’t hate. But once I’m through being sad, the hate will come back, even stronger than before. Do you blame me?