Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The VA: Heartless AND Contemptible!


Helping my fellow veterans over the last three years has been eye opening and interesting. Unfortunately, it’s also been gut wrenching. Two things strike me as I think back on my past 36 months as a Veterans Service Officer: first, there are some amazing United States veterans running around out there; and second, the VA can be a pissy bunch of pricks.

Personally, I have been treated fairly by the benefit system in place for U.S. veterans. But, I was lucky; I knew how to “play” the system, a system that is stacked against the unknowing. Six months before I left the service, I happened to run into a woman, my angel, who clued me in on what I needed to do to prepare for what was to come.

As for my “angel,” she had been forced to leave her career in Air Force security after contracting Lyme Disease. When she left active duty, no one advised or guided her through the convoluted VA disability compensation system. No one told her about veteran service officers, and so she made the classic mistake of trying to file on her own, expecting that the VA would do right by her. Right off the bat they underrated her disability, which began a years-long appeals battle. In the meantime, she used her VA vocational rehabilitation benefits to get a degree, which she parleyed into a job working FOR the “enemy.” That’s right, she went to work for the VA! She figured the best way to fight her foes is to infiltrate them. I met her in the Tri-care* office at the new hospital on McGuire Air Force Base not long after she had left the VA for greener pastures. (*Tri-care is the military HMO).

While she was advising me on a Tri-care issue, I mentioned I would probably have to retire in the near future. Immediately, she asked me if I was planning to claim disability for my many physical problems. I answered in the affirmative, and after asking me a few pointed questions, she quickly surmised that I was ignorant and woefully prepared.

She asked me, “Do you have some time? I can give you some pointers if you want to learn how to deal with THOSE people.” She almost spit with disgust as she referred to the VA.

I jumped at the chance. I pulled a notebook from my knapsack, and for the next hour or so she filled me in. She was as passionate as an evangelist; she spoke with a glint in her eye and with fire in her gut. I scribbled line after line of info, pitfalls to watch out for and medical evidence to gather. I look back at those dozen or so pages of notes now, and I realize how basic the things are that she told me, but oh so important! The primary benefit I derived from her intervention was to be WARY! Expect the worst; preempt the bastards!

So, what is it exactly about the Veterans Administration that upsets me so much? It isn’t any one thing; it’s comprehensive. If I didn’t have my service officer goggles on, I probably wouldn’t feel one way or another about them. After all, I did okay. But as I think back on how it COULD have gone, and on some of the shabby treatment other “unprotected” veterans have suffered, THAT’S when I start to fume.

I believe that there is a conspiracy of silence. This plot to keep veterans unaware of their benefits and what is required to win compensation involves not ONLY the Veterans Administration; it also involves the collusion of the U.S. military. Why would our leaders in the Pentagon do this? Here’s what I think—the way they see it, every time a vet is awarded another entitlement it’s money taken away from THEIR budget. I say, “TOO BAD!” The Department of Defense is quite ready to use our devotion to duty to accomplish the nation’s military taskings WHILE we wear the uniform, but as soon as we leave, that is when we are looked at as nothing more than a financial drain. I’ve actually heard Pentagon spokesmen refer to military retirees as a “threat” to the security of the United States because of the money we pull away from their weapons systems coffers! The conspiracy I accuse them of becomes quite apparent as the time for discharge from service draws near.

In the weeks or months before one is due to separate, most servicemen and women attend a weeklong seminar called a TAP briefing. TAP stands for Transition Assistance Program, and it includes a period of three or four hours on post-service VA benefits. Usually a VA representative briefs the VA portion and my TAP was no exception. My TAP mates and I listened very attentively to this glib fellow, and we THOUGHT he was being very informative, but now I know how truly deficient his lecture actually was. Instead of telling us jokes and amusing us, he SHOULD have told us what we needed to know about how to properly go about making a claim for disability compensation—such as the following:

· Veteran Service Officers; that they exist, what they do, and how they are INDISPENSABLE if a veteran plans on making a successful disability claim.

· Medical Evidence. The fact that the evidence must show three things before a claimed condition will be rated as service connected: 1) diagnosis of a condition while in service, 2) current diagnosis of the condition, and finally 3) that the condition existed from service to the present.

· The first year after discharge is PARAMOUNT! Two things are important concerning that first year after getting out. First, if veterans apply for compensation within 365 days, once they are rated, the award date is retroactive to the date of discharge. However, if they wait until the 366th day, then the award date is the date of the application for benefits. The second important thing EVERY veteran should know about that first year is this: THE PRESUMPTIVE PERIOD! It means that almost any disabling medical condition discovered during the first year is considered to have originated in service. Can you see why the VA conceals this from us?

· Waiting to file is a HUGE mistake! Every day, month and year a veteran waits to file makes it that much more difficult to win a claim for disability compensation. Most veterans are more concerned with finding a job and a decent place to live for their family than they are about filing for disability. The more time that passes the less likely a vet will be able to prove his claim, thus, advantage VA!

· The VA ONLY considers what you claim, and NOTHING else! This means that normally, the VA will not award compensation for a condition that is NOT actually written down on the claim form. If the veteran has a host of illnesses and disabling conditions, and doesn’t completely understand the nature of them all, he might not write them all down on the form. The VA won’t go through and look for “missed” ailments in the service medical records. Nope. The VA will only consider what is asked for and usually nothing else. Is this ethical? Hell no! But they do it regularly.

The five bits of info above are very basic to those of us who deal with the VA on a continuous basis, but virtually no one separating from their military branch knows about them. To me, it’s criminal and inexcusable. From what I’ve seen, both the military and the VA would just as soon keep their people uninformed of this crucial information.

If all there was to it is that the VA and the DoD conspire to keep vets from what they are entitled to, then I wouldn’t have near the enmity I do about it. What causes my fury against the Veterans Administration is how truly pissy they treat so many of my comrades. Here are some examples, and I plan on adding to these as more occur to me.

· About 40 years ago, a paratrooper in the army made a drop from 2500 feet. His first chute “streamed” and he immediately deployed his second parachute. It also failed to deploy, and in the next few seconds he was convinced he was about to die. Using every foul word known to a soldier, and there are more than three, he hit the ground. He remembers bouncing off the ground high into the air (later he was told he bounced 25 feet). He said the second impact was the one that hurt. He broke multiple bones and his guts became a jumbled mess inside his body cavity. He lived, but he required many operations to put humpty back to together. The army lost his medical records and the VA had the gumption to deny his claim based on “lack of evidence.” After a long battle he won his claim and was correctly rated at 100% disabled. Years later the VA whimsically decided he was no longer that bad and reduced him to 40%. This required another appeals war.

· In the early 1960s my ex-sailor veteran client was ordered to stand on the deck of a ship in the South Pacific with scores of his shipmates. After given dark goggles to protect their vision, they watched as an atomic bomb went off miles away. He said it was the most incredibly beautiful sight he has ever witnessed, but at what cost? These guys absorbed some horrendous radiation and virtually all of them are dead or dying today. My guy is horribly sick. Two years ago he was granted full compensation for his condition, and he came here to the Philippines where he can afford the services of a full time attendant. Recently, he received word that he missed a scheduled exam in the U.S., an appointment he was unaware of, and because of this the VA arbitrarily decided that his radiation sickness is not all that bad after all. His disability compensation is the only money he has coming in and now it may stop. He called me the other day, so sick that I could hardly hear him, worried to death, and at a loss as to what to do. The heartless sons of bitches have probably taken another six months off his lifespan because of the stress they have placed him under.

· Typically, our office assists two or three surviving spouses of deceased veterans every month. Most of these grieving and dazed women have children, and these ladies have no idea what to do when it comes to filling out claims for benefits from the VA, DFAS*, and Social Security. Unfairly, there is a cap on the total amount of compensation these widows are allowed to receive as far as the VA is concerned. Yet the VA depends almost entirely on these unsophisticated women to inform them if they receive monies above the “pay cap.” I’ve seen several times where the VA will “discover” an “overpayment” and without fail they want ALL of it back, sometimes as much as $37,000 going back 10 years, and they want it returned as quickly as possible. They don’t care if it means that a family can no longer afford to stay in their home, or even if they have money for food. They simply stop all payment until it is paid in full. I’ve never seen them grant a waiver to forgive the debt, and usually they don’t even entertain a reasonable payback plan, although it is allowed by regulation. (*Defense Finance and Accounting Service is the military retiree payment center).

· Filipinos who fought for the United States in WWII qualify for U.S. veterans benefits, but only IF they can prove service. After the war the army canvassed the country using hundreds of personnel in a group called the War Claims Commission or the WCC. Even though these 80-some-year-old Filipino veterans clutch certifiably valid U.S. army documents showing they served in the U.S. Armed Forces of the Far East or recognized guerrilla units, the VA refuses to even look at these documents if their names cannot be found on the list compiled by the WCC. This list is considered chiseled in stone and is unalterable in any way. That means these honorable old gentlemen will never be recognized for their service because no WCC personnel ever bothered to contact them 60 years ago. This egregious outrage has been going on for decades, VARO Manila knows about it, AND THEY COULD NOT CARE LESS!

· I put a 76-year-old navy veteran in for Unemployability. The VA denied his claim because they said his college degree meant that he should be able to find office work. Mind you, this man was almost blind, was suffering peripheral neuropathy in all four limbs, and needed assistance to walk and in getting up. These were but a few of his service-connected ailments. It took me six months to convince the adjudicators of their wrongheaded decision. His condition was completely apparent in his VA case file, yet they made him go through this fight. If I hadn’t been there to fight for him, HE WOULD NOT HAVE RECEIVED HIS BENEFITS! Can you see why I have nightmares?

I could go on, but the essence of the VA’s shameless lack of empathy for veterans and their dependents is more than discernible from these few actual cases. The very fact that my services are even required is shameful. The system is adversarial to the extreme, when the charter of the VA states that it is supposed to be anything but that. “Reasonable doubt” in favor of the vet is the theoretical, NO; it is the PROCLAIMED standard of the VA! Why then is the system so contentious? In this time of war, why is the veteran looked upon by the DoD and the VA as nothing more than a parasite? Our overpaid congressmen and senators need serve only one term and they receive pensions, medical care and allowances for life. When the World Trade Centers went down, the families of the victims received at least a million dollars each, and they squawked about it not being enough. Our veterans and their widows are only asking for a small fraction of the same kind of response. When is the VA going to make my job unnecessary? Why do I have to lose sleep every night because my comrades are not being treated with the consideration and respect that they have earned? Carlos Pebenito at VARO Manila! Are you listening?!


misyeli said...

Hello, I'm glad I came across your blog. I am presently helping a family friend who is a widow of a WWII USAFFE veteran. Do you have a contact number? Or do you have contact details of Mr. Pebenito and his office? My email ad is Hope we can correspond on this. Thanks.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hi Michelle,
Nice hearing from you..... I'm afraid the news is bad for your auntie based on what you told me. Her problem is a very common one with filipino WWII vets and their spousal dependents. The VA punts any claim first to NPRC for verifcatioin against their records regardless of what documents the vets provide. No matter how much overwhelming proof is provided to the VA, unless the vet made that "list" at NPRC then there is no hope... Its completely unfair and it has shamed me to no end because it is a terrible thing to do these folks. When you get a chance read this post (Justice for Filipino WWII Veterans!); it explains in more detail the depth of the problem and what must happen to fix it...

On top of that I'm not sure she could avail of any help even if she could prove her husband's service. There is no widows pension for filipino wwII vets, only something called DIC, or dependency indemnity compensation; and that is ONLY paid to a widow if she can prove her veteran husband died of a condition that is service connected. Since he is already passed and never proved his veterans status while alive then it is now impossible to for her to prove service conection.

I am very sorry for your auntie Michelle, but I've seen cases like hers over the past four years that number into the hundreds... Feel free to continue to ask any questions that come up...
Take care..... phil