Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Literally Worried to Death by the VA

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?


Anonymous said...

Something I learned a long time ago. Worry is a habit. As children we do not worry because we have not learned the habit. But as we grow older we observe and then take on this terrible habit. The worse thing is what it can do to us physically. The good thing is that once we realize that it is a habit and we are all capable of changing our habits then we are on our way to getting over such a terrible habit. I’m not saying we should let things go, but we should not worry about them. If one can relieve the habit then they will be doing their body wonders.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Worry may very well be a bad habit for many of us, but the folks I"m talking about here are severely sick with depression and anxiety. It's something they cannot simply philosophize away. I've seen men's hearts stop beating from it. Please don't trivialize what these fellows are going through. Believe me, the VA loves to do that already.

What outrages me is that not one of those raters at the VA in Manila are Americans, and none are veterans, so how can we expect them to understand what even the average U.S. veteran has gone through? And certainly none of those raters can possibly empathize with U.S. vets suffering from the long-term effects of combat trauma; how could they? Yet these non-American, non-veterans are the people making the most important decisions as far as ratings approval and denial. These rating officers might be nice people, but they have proven to me that they are NOT qualified to make those kinds of crucial life and death decisions. Are you feeling me yet?

Anonymous said...

I feel ya and I would never trivialize them. C&P Manila told me that there were four Doctors on the board. Three are Filipino's and one is an American. My claim is in their hands as I write. I pray for good results...but I expect to be highly disappointed and ultimately fighting a very long battle. It should not be that way.
Do you still need a Sta Maria II sticker for school?

PhilippinesPhil said...

The American doctor must be new within the last couple months because I've never met her. Be advised however, the doctors don't rate, they only assess and provide opinion and the opinions are almost always spun against the vets. You still feeling me?

Good hearing from you again James. Sure, I could do with a sticker! How's school my friend?

KA said...

it doesnt help that the VA has lost money and funding over the years. It also doesnt help that we're not taking more preventative measures to ensure that soldiers coming home are treated IMMEDIATELY so that we can nip the problem in the bud, give them (and their families) better ways to deal with it, as opposed to letting them silently suffer and fester for years before it truly becomes a living nightmare that eats them from the inside out...

So that we're less reliant on another (near incompetent) government organization (then again, name a govt organization that's good?). I think that's the answer... no one can care for themselves better than the individuals and their family, we just need to arm them with the knowledge they need to do that. We know what veterans come home with, and what state they're in. We have enough studies to know what is likely to happen after 10 years, 20 years, 30 years... it's not a damn surprise anymore. We have ways to deal with mentally debilitating problems and yet they're not applied. Preventative measures could help deflate some of the horrible mental illnesses that our vets suffer from. Bah. I'm done on this topic. This is just one students opinion, but I'm sick to death that no one arms these soldiers with the knowledge they need to take care of themselves. Everyone just expects it to happen magically - like they're equipped with this super human power to know things they havent been taught.

PhilippinesPhil said...

You're right, its about funding. The VA sees itself as having to keep spending under control and they do so at the expense of these veterans.

But! Its one thing to stall and hem and haw over a bad back or a bum knee; its quite another to mess with them over PTSD. These guys mentally implode and emotionally explode when they do. And you know what? Nicholson and his evildoers could not care less...seemingly.

KA said...

Yeh, the army just don't take mental illness seriously. Which drives me up the wall. I think that mental health is a lot more important than people give it credit for - people just cast it off as a fault of someone who's emotionally brittle... PTSD concerns me, especially since (unlike a bad back or a bum knee) it will affect every facet of their life, their world, their existence. I think the entire army's medical system needs to be overhauled. I've never seen more incompetence in my life... and I was a CADIDIOT.

PhilippinesPhil said...

It isn't just the army Katana. All the services make it almost impossible for anyone wanting to continue serving to go for mental health counseling. Believe me, no matter what you or anyone else says in the mental health sections at the clinics, once a person goes in for help and IF that person is identified as having some kind of condition, at that point, their career is effectively OVER! This is FACT! Thus, no one seeks help unless they no longer care about continuing their careers. Its a Catch 22. In a nutshell: Get help and get sacked! Its cold and its hard, but there it is.

Anonymous said...

katana says:
"it doesnt help that the VA has lost money and funding over the years."

i say:
not only "lost" but also misappropriated. did you read about that scandal a couple months ago where the VA administrators voted themselves big bonuses? they are shameless!

katana says:
"ensure that soldiers coming home are treated IMMEDIATELY so that we can nip the problem in the bud"

i say:
yeah, in my case i left the army disfigured and i stayed that way for 11 years because the VA refused to deal with me. i finally got help from a non-VA entity. but those lost years were my 20s, when i should have been dealing effectively with new career and marriage and school. they were truly lost years, not just a sixth of my lifetime but potentially the BEST sixth of my lifetime.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Different war same 'ol VA. ...and the beat goes on!