Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Filing for VA Compensation – Retiring in the Philippines Part II

For at least the next few years there is going to be a VA Regional Office in Manila, and THAT is a good thing for anyone considering retiring here. Originally, my intention was to file for my disability compensation BEFORE coming over, but I changed my mind after sending an email to a Mr. McQuown at the Manila VA back in early 2002 just months before I retired. He assured me that it would be no problem to file my disability claims in the Philippines, so I took the plunge.

Its four years later – was it a smart move, or would I have been better off filing in the USA before coming over? Actually, it turned out to be a great move to file here instead of the United States, and for a couple of different reasons. The primary one – medical evidence! To ensure you maximize your claim results, you’ll need medical evidence, and it’s easier to get plenty of it fast and cheap right here in the Phils. I will probably provide more on the necessity for medical evidence in a later post, or email me at pjspear1@yahoo.com for my current treatise on what a veteran needs to know to file for VA disability.

Another reason to file in the Philippines: access to information. When you retire here, especially to areas such as Angeles City, Olangapo, and Baguio where hundreds of American military retirees currently live, with very little effort you will make contact with kindred spirits like yourself, people who are either going through the VA application process, or who have already gone through it. These folks will be a great help in steering you in the right direction for advice, and warning you of the pitfalls that await you once you enter the VA lair. Better yet, the REALLY smart ones will advise you to acquire the services of a veteran service officer like me. Do not try to do it by yourself – the VA will eat you alive if you do.

Right up until about a year ago, I would have said that another motive to file at the VA Regional Office in Manila was that a veteran would have a better chance for a quick and accurate adjudication of his claim. I WON’T say that anymore. I don’t know if its just here, or if its happening at all the VA regional offices, but decisions out of Manila have been taking longer, and they have more often than not been going AGAINST veterans, and that’s in spite of medical evidence that used to mean automatic approval. My opinion – there is a drive in the “VA institution” to reduce claim amounts to save bucks, and to do what I call “kick the can.” That is, the VA raters seem to be simply denying what I think are “good claims,” which then forces veterans to go through the lengthy appeal process. I know I sound libelous, but THAT is exactly what SEEMS to be happening. Hey, I call ‘em as I see ‘em.

And finally, a very valid basis to come here and file is the low cost of living in this country. Why? Because being able to concentrate ALL your efforts and energy on pursuing your VA compensation gives you a decided advantage over those who do so in the States. Veterans in the U.S.A. usually MUST worry about making money, and that means finding a job, so they are usually unable to do the things and acquire the evidence they need to maximize their claims. Living here, you will be able to make your VA pursuits your job. My experience: a half-hearted attempt will give you feeble results.

And consider this, if you expect the VA to do the right the thing by you, by conducting a thorough medical examination and then to use the exam results to properly rate your service-connected conditions, forget about it! My experience is that VA doctors habitually trivialize veteran’s conditions, and usually, if a vet overlooks an ailment on the initial claim form, the VA will NOT normally consider it, no matter how obvious it is. Shameful? You bet it is! So, to overcome this VA tendency to mess over veterans during the compensation application process, veterans MUST concentrate their personal efforts to ensure best results, and that is BEST done here, where making a living is NOT the primary order of things.

Hence, all you veterans contemplating retiring here, come on over and come see me, or someone like me. Filing for VA disability compensation? The Phils is the place to be.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Delightful Davao

Fittingly, it's Memorial Day Weekend; and I say "fittingly" because once again we went aventuring on a continuous quest to help fellow veterans, especially our WWII Filipino comrades. This time we went to Tagum, a pleasant town about an hour’s drive north of Davao City.

We spent the first night in Davao City in the Marco Polo Hotel. Believe me, it is high-end. We suffered sticker shock when the concierge announced the rate, about $300 for the two of us. Needless to say, we talked them into a 30% discount. About the only good thing I’ll say about that place is I had a stunning view of the city and the bay from my window eight stories up.

As far as amenities, pretty much any U.S. Air Force Visiting Airmen’s Quarters has more to offer. For example, the last senior NCO room I stayed in had a lazyboy lounger, a fridge with plenty of affordable goodies (not so affordable in the Marco Polo!), an iron and ironing board, Internet access, plus soap, shampoo and towels. The Marco Polo can’t compete with that by any means, although they tried to bribe us with a plate of fruit and a complimentary breakfast.

Davao City is a big bustling port town – not nearly as big as Manila – and it’s certainly much more appealing than the capital on many levels. DC has wide clean boulevards and unlike Manila, the streets are pristine and the pavement smooth. Why can’t Manila be like that? It’s not simply a question of size either – it’s more about city planning and management – by comparison, Davao City has a grid of wide streets that keeps traffic moving by providing more than one way to get from point A to point B.
Manila has a few large boulevards that limit a driver’s options. Outside of the main thoroughfares, Manila is a rabbit warren of confusing alley-like side streets. A driver in Manila leaves the primary routes at his own risk, and it’ll never change because it would mean razing thousands of buildings to fix it. Manila will always choke on its traffic and it will only get worse. Sigh.

A row of taxis was lined up outside the hotel. For just over $20 one of them agreed to take us the 55 km north to Tagum. The road north eventually leads hundreds of miles to Butuan; for our relatively short distance it followed the coast until just before reaching Tagum where we veered inland.

I enjoyed the leapfrog driving it takes to make the trip in just about an hour. There are scores of lumbering semi-trucks on the mostly two-lane concrete national highway, so our driver, and all the drivers for that matter, play a well-coordinated game of chicken with each other. Driving like that would never work in the structured traffic of the USA, but drivers here are cut from a different bolt. It seems like chaos, but in fact Filipino drivers are, if not skilled, at least used to the give-and-take required to drive in a place where stop signs and traffic signals are rare.

For all the heavy traffic, the road to Tagum is in remarkably good shape. The cheaply made roads around here tend to break down quickly under the weight of trucks, so I will assume that there is less corruption in Davao – more of the allotted construction money actually goes INTO construction – what else can I think?

Admittedly, I was a bit leery about going to Davao. It seems I hear about a bomb going off in the city or outlying areas every few months. One of the first things I noticed down there is the ubiquitous presence of police and soldiers. They man checkpoints and are stationed anyplace that might conceivably bring trouble. I’ve always felt a kinship for security personnel after my experiences with that sort of work in the military. I make it a point to nod and say hello. In Manila and Pampanga the cops are sullen and usually simply stare or even glare at me when I try to acknowledge them. In Davao, without exception, every time I said hello and smiled at a cop or soldier they smiled back and waved. I always felt comfortable around them, like we are all on the same side. Around here I feel unwelcome and despised by the police. Perhaps they are resentful for some reason?

(Dang it! I took my cam with me, but after having not used it for so long I had it set on low resolution. All my pics came out fuzzy. Oh well. Live and learn).

We awaited the grand commander of the local WWII veterans, Mr. Cirpo, at a prearranged site, the Tagum City Hall. We sat in the shade of an acacia until someone came and took us around back to a brand new covered pavilion, part of a newly built community center. I was surprised to see a sea of veterans and their families waiting for us. We strolled up to them and several of the old fellows proudly came to attention and saluted. I snapped off my best marine salute. They were thrilled at my show of respect. I’ve said it a million times, I love being around these wonderful old fellas. They are THE best!

We rolled up our sleeves and went to work. First, however, Doc gave the group our spiel, thanking them for their service and for inviting us, and letting them know who we are, and exactly what we were there to do for them. Each commander then gave his own speech. These leaders were a huge help; they pulled no punches in explaining exactly what the limitations of their cases might be, based on our assessment of their situations.

Over the next few days, we sat side-by-side at a small table under that huge open-air pavilion poring over each veteran or widow’s stacks of documents, most of their papers yellow and brittle with age. It sounds tedious, and it is, but I never lose sight that each person sitting next to me expects my best, and I do my best to give it to them. At times I feel like a combination of lawyer, detective and bureaucrat. It’s tough, but it can be rewarding too. There’s not much I wouldn’t do to help these folks; I just wish my own government felt the same.

Just like the rest of Davao that I observed, Tagum is CLEAN, . . . AND the streets are WIDE! It is remarkable to me that even the side and secondary lanes are very broad. Tagum is a fairly big place and I have never seen a town of its size in the Philippines with such wide streets. How did they do this? I asked Mr. Cirpo about it. He claims that way back in the late 60s, before there even was a Tagum City, the local far-sighted planners decided to lay out a grid of amply expansive streets. For years these super-wide streets were just gravel and dirt roads, but eventually they were paved as the city grew into its streets. Incredibly, most of the narrowest of Tagum’s myriad streets are wider than Angeles City’s primary main drag, MacArthur Boulevard.

As far as the cleanliness, I cannot praise them enough for that local trait. I wish Angelenos would follow the Davaweno example. Around here I have to studiously NOT look at the mounds of trash everywhere. For instance, go to any of the four bridges fording the Abacan River in Angeles City and look out at what should be a beautiful vista, instead what you’ll see is garbage and flotsam. It’s sad, and MY personal solution is to simply NOT look at it. The Davawenos seem to have instinctive self-discipline and awareness when it comes to disposing of their refuse. I never saw a scrap of paper on any of the streets and gutters of Tagum. I asked Mr. Cirpo about this and he didn’t even have an answer, so apparently it’s not even something they think about. They are just clean people. I applaud them.

Tagum boasts the largest set of rosary beads in the world, or so the locals claim. Mr. Cirpo was anxious for us to see them, and being an old altar boy I wanted to check them out myself. He and his grandson drove us out to the new Catholic Church. I say new, but it could be several years old. It’s design and look is certainly modern. It has a castle-like appearance that to me looks a bit Disneyesque. With its understated Floridian-like exterior coloring, it certainly doesn’t resemble the Old Spanish style cathedrals, although it is impressive in a vibrant unique way.

The morning we visited happened to be the same day that the bishop was ordaining the new pastor; at least I think that’s what was going on. We found a parking spot near the entrance and squeezed into it. There were scores of soldiers and cops on hand, with many more stationed on street corners and along the route to the church. Once again I greeted each soldier and police officer and they amiably returned my greeting with a hearty “good morning sir!” What a wonderful change from the glum glares I’m used to getting around here.

The gigantic rosary was behind the massive church. We walked around back and immediately noticed a large open-armed Jesus statue with a sacred heart prominently displayed on His chest. It looks rather Egyptian-like – Christ’s body is framed by a large red pyramid-shaped backdrop and Jesus himself is styled as an upside down triangle to counter the shape of the reddish triangular background. All this looks down at the humongous rosary beads made of sculpted wood connected by large chains. If I’d have had the time, I would have loved to have prayed a quick rosary; alas, such is my life. The pictures I took are blurry, but I include them to provide at least the gist of what I saw.

Mr. Cirpo is 80 years old. He’s as thin as a rail and gets around better than I do. As I’ve said before though, these old folks are the ones to talk to if you want to get the feel of a place. As we drove around, he bantered non-stop, giving us a continuous history lesson and enthusiastically answering all our questions. Without him, our view of Tagum City would have been pallid and one-dimensional.

For instance, he informed us that before The War that area of the Philippines was heavily settled with thousands of Japanese. In fact, he said that Davao City was known as Little Tokyo. I did some reading and learned that the Japanese came in their droves because of the opportunities afforded at the turn of the century by the newly arrived American colonizers. Ironically, we Yanks encouraged them to come in and help develop the Davao wilderness agriculturally. A Japanese grower developed a superior type of hemp that became world-renowned and brought a lot of money into Davao.

When the war started in 1941 there were almost 14,000 Japanese living there. Naturally, Japan concentrated a lot of their interest on the area; but soon, any goodwill that preexisted the war was destroyed by their cruelty. Mr. Cirpo was just 15 in 1941 when he and his family were forced onto a concentration camp. His dad died in the camp due to their cruelty; he expired from complications of a beating and from poor medical care. Once old enough, Cirpo escaped and joined the local resistance as a private in the guerrillas. He proudly displays two shrapnel wounds on his left knee and right elbow, although the VA refuses to acknowledge them -- typical of the Veterans Administration when it comes to the way they deal with these honorable old gentlemen.

He and his grandson drove us out to the huge Ayala Plantation, originally owned by International Harvester. On the way, we passed by the site of the new City Hall located to the southwest of Tagum City. Evidently they have already outgrown their old one. I’m not surprised; the place really seems to be thriving with industry and optimism.

Mr. Cirpo pointed out huge groves of bananas and coconuts. He proudly states that no one can possibly starve in Tagum, so fertile is the land in that area. “You can always find something to eat,” he declares. Plantation workers are among the highest paid in the area, making around $6 a day in a place where most laborers make half that. If you find that stunning, you are probably a Westerner. Check this out, my buddy Edgar, an over-qualified electrician (he has an electrical engineering degree) makes just $10 a day working at a foreign-owned hotel here in Pampanga.

Like clockwork, it rained every afternoon we were there. After learning this the hard way, we did our touring in the morning when it was invariably bright and sunny with just a smattering of clouds to portend the coming showers. Take note: if you plan on coming to the Philippines this time of the year, especially to Davao, bring an umbrella, or be where you want to be by about 2 p.m.

One last note: The Molave Hotel is a great place to stay while in Tagum City. For just $12 a night we had almost everything we had at the Marco Polo, including cable TV. In fact, I was able to catch the final two nights of American Idol. (Taylor Hicks won, but -- MY opinion -- the two best singers were Chris and Yamin!) Oh, a word of warning, the Molave does NOT have hot water, so once again I found myself showering out of a bucket, splashing breathtakingly cold water over my head; but for the money why not!?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

A Flowery Welcome Home

It's good to be back.
As "Dug-out Doug," or Douglas MacArthur said late in '44 on Leyte, "I have returned." It's always nice to come home, and now that Rainy Season has also returned with a vengeance, everything is lush and green again.
We had a typical tropical "gully washer" last night, the kind that brings torrents of rain so violent that it drowns out conversation. I went out with my cam in one hand and my morning coffee in the other.
I never grow tired of glorying in the sight of God's second greatest gift to mankind, the first being Filipinas of course!
I need to get off my duff and learn the names of these beautiful plants. The only ones I'm sure of are the orchids. Can anyone fill me in? I'm pretty sure this one is some kind of lily. Davao was great. My next post will be about my trip there. Stay tuned......


Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Rizal Monument, A Suggestion

The Rizal Monument is a grenade throw from the Rizal Diorama. I’ve driven by the monument dozens of times and I’ve always wanted to check it out from up close, unfortunately, that still hasn’t happened.

I was disappointed with the Rizal Shrine for a couple of reasons. First thing, I wasn’t happy with the people barricades. The steeple shaped memorial with it’s blunt top is not that imposing to begin with, but it seems even smaller because the fencing keeps the viewer so far away from it. I’m not certain why this is done – perhaps to protect it? If so, why are the guards there?

The Filipino marines guarding the spire were my other source of dissatisfaction. As I walked around the sides of the monument trying futilely to get closer to it, I paused to speak to four young local college students, three teenage boys and one young lady. They were resting in some shade along the wide sidewalk

I greeted them: “Hi guys. How long have you been watching?”

“About 45 minutes,” one of the boys answered.

“Do you know if they are going to have a ceremony to change the guards?” I queried.

One of the guys spoke up: “No, they just change them. Those are marines, so they are tough!” As he spoke, I realized he was gay. The homosexuals over here make it quite clear what their sexual proclivity is.

“That’s cool. I was hoping there was going to be a ceremony to watch when its time for replacement guards. We have a monument like this in the States that is guarded by special army troops 24 hours a day, and they have a spectacular changing of the guard ceremony every half hour or so. Are you sure they don’t have anything like that here?”

The homosexual fellow, evidently the group spokesman, said cutely, “Filipino marines don’t need to change. They are so tough that they can stand there for hours.”

“Yeah, when I was a marine I remember having to stand for hours in the sun in Southern California; it’s even harder than running in the sun.” Once I told them that they stopped being clever and we had a nice conservation as we stood in the shade and looked toward the faraway monument. But that was it – no plaque to read, no ceremonial changing of the guard, nothing. Plus the guards didn't march or move at all, they just stood at parade rest. After a minute or so, there was no reason to look anymore.

I have some suggestions for anyone who might be able to implement them. First, let people get closer to the monument. The way it stands now, it’s a “drive by” monument, because you can see it just as well from your car as you can walking up to it. I hate to make an American comparison, because it makes me sound arrogant, but I will anyway. One of our most sacred U.S. places is The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the nearby JFK burial crypt located in Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac River, high on a hill overlooking Washington D.C. Thousands of visitors a year visit these sites, and it is a moving and memorable experience to do so. Why? Because you can walk right up to them; you aren’t kept so far away that you feel detached. All good memorial sites should make you feel this way.

And if the people of the Philippines really want to capitalize from the aspects of both tourism and nationalism, have your Rizal Monument Guards take a lesson from the “Old Guard,” the U.S. unit that guards the “The Tomb.” As a “marine” I grudgingly give these “soldiers” huge respect for their professionalism and dedication. When you watch them march, ramrod straight, back and forth in front of the “unknowns,” you can’t help but to be struck by their commitment. You realize that these fellows aren’t just guarding precious remains inside that pure white sarcophagus, but they are demonstrating the fidelity and professionalism of all Americans in uniform. When their fellow citizens see THEM, it brings on a realization that the country is secure and well protected.

I hope someday the Philippines will see fit to do something similar with their revered monument to their greatest citizen, Jose Rizal. By doing so, they will not only be showing the wonderful spirit that already exists in this nation, but they will increase it one hundred fold. They should take their current standard and seek to surpass it. My suggestion is to make the Rizal Shrine something that will make all Filipinos WANT to see it, to make them proud WHEN they see it, and to make it an experience that they will tell their children about. As it stands now, the shrine is taken for granted; it’s just a spire of sculpted rock that people hardly glance at as they drive up Roxas Boulevard. I know that it can be a whole lot more.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Retiring in the Philippines: Health Care Update

TriCare Overseas: Good news & Bad news

One of my veteran buddies came into the office yesterday with some news on how TriCare is doing here in Angeles City. It seems that two hospitals, Pamana in Angeles City proper, and Mt. Carmel halfway to the city of San Fernando are both accepting and treating retirees under the TriCare banner.

We’ll see how long these two facilities continue to support us. What concerns me is that neither charges up front for any care, which I thought was a no-no under TriCare Overseas rules. But who am I to look a gift horse in the mouth?

My bud told me that he actually had a colonoscopy done at Mt. Carmel last week. The doctor excised four polyps, and performed a biopsy discovering that they are pre-cancerous. He paid nothing up front and as far as he’s concerned everything is hunky-dory.

I’m going to keep my fingers crossed, but I’ll be keeping an eye on how it all works out. I’ve also heard some bad news from another veteran about Pamana. He said he tried to use them as a TriCare patient and they basically gave him the brush-off. From what I can see the news is mixed so far.

Stay tuned.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Retire to the Philippines? Part I

Today's Lesson: Health Care

I literally retired HERE more than four years ago; in fact, I was on terminal leave for almost three months before being finally and officially discharged.

So, after being here these past 47 months do I think it was a good idea to live in The Phils? In a word, yes. I love it here, BUT if YOU are about to retire from the armed forces, or you are already retired and you are considering coming here to live, FIRST do your homework by reading on.

Information is primary. You need as much of it as you can get BEFORE you can make an informed decision. Don’t come here (to the Phils) until you know as many of the disadvantages as you can. Knowing the advantages is okay, but the negative aspects should be what governs your decision MOST.

Today’s lesson: Health Care. As a retiree in the Phils, you have two possible options for medical care: 1) The VA Outpatient Clinic (VAOPC) in Manila, or also through the VAOPC as a veteran VA Fee Basis patient for service-connected conditions, and 2) Tri-Care Overseas. For your family, the only option you have for them is Tri-Care.

Medicare is no good here; you can’t use it anywhere overseas, although if you are eligible for Medicare you MUST signup for Part B, or you cannot avail of TriCare Overseas. It’s totally unfair, but that’s the way it is.

To use the VAOPC here, a veteran must first have at least a single rated service-connected (SC) disability, even if its one rated at just 0% that is good, because THAT will get your foot in the VAOPC door. They will treat your SC conditions either on an outpatient basis, or they will issue a “chit” for treatment at an authorized medical facility hopefully near you, a program called “Fee Basis.” Keep in mind, however, that Fee Basis is ONLY for your SC disabilities.

The VAOPC has the option of treating or not treating your non-service-connected conditions on an outpatient basis. It seems whimsical, but they make the rules and they are NOT the same rules that apply at a stateside VA medical facility. Why is this? Read below.

VA Manila is the ONLY VA facility outside of the territory of the USA. It first opened its doors in the 1920s when the Philippines was still a commonwealth of the United States. The VA here remained open after Philippine Independence in 1947 because of the huge numbers of Filipino WWII vets, deemed by law to be US veterans. The rules are different here in how they treat veterans at the VAOPC, because they are funded different. Remember, the PRIMARY reason for VARO Manila’s existence is to provide for the dwindling number of WWII Filipino veterans. The fact that the rest of us non-Filipino US vets can also get treatment is our good fortune, but we should NOT consider it permanent. There WILL come a time when the BIG VA in Washington will request VARO Manila’s closure in a cost-saving bid. I can almost guarantee this will happen.

Once the VA closes in Manila, all we will have available for medical is TriCare Overseas. (I believe the closure of VA Manila will start to be a real possibility starting around 2009). When I first arrived in 2002, we had access to all the TriCare we needed. Unfortunately, due to suspected multimillion-dollar abuses of the system, we no longer have it so good. Before, we put no money down, signed up with CyberCare or HealthVisions, got our treatment and meds, and TriCare paid directly to the healthcare providers. Now, you MUST pay up front for treatment and medications, fill out a TriCare Form 2642, and send it and billing receipts to Wisconsin for assessment with the hope they will refund 75% of the charges.

There are rumors that we will be able to buy local health insurance to help cover the burden of the non-refundable 25%, or perhaps even to relieve us of the current "cash down" requirement, but so far it’s all rumors. Time after time another company pops up and seems to offer another Health Visions style health plan, but none of them have panned out as the genuine article at this time.

In a nutshell, it all means that if you have the potential of a serious health problem, this is NOT the place to be, UNLESS you have access to some money, either with a credit card or some savings. Treatment is VERY inexpensive in the Philippines, but the bills can add up pretty quickly if you become admitted for a stroke, heart attack or for some other serious condition. If you think you’ll just hop back over to the States and start using your TriCare Prime or Medicare, guess again. NO airlines will consider taking you back on a normal flight if you are so sick that you might need oxygen to make it through the flight. So, you will be stuck here until you can either recover to the point of being flyable, or…!

I don’t like being a wet blanket, but as I said above, it’s the NEGATIVES that you should be MOST aware of when making a decision to live here or not.

Now, read this, my first post, which explains what I LIKE about living in the Phils! Its proof that it’s not ALL doom and gloom over here. Oh, and here’s another local website sponsored by Jim Boyd, the Retiree Activities Officer AND local Embassy Warden, right here in Angeles City that is jam-packed with almost every conceivable bit of info you will need to make a decision to live here or not. I found it before I got out in ’02, and it convinced me to give it a try – no regrets so far!

Stay tuned for further posts on retiring from the US Armed Forces and living here in the Philippines, and if you have any questions at all, please feel free to ask them in the comments section or email me at