Things are not fixed at the Department of Veterans Affairs. They may be improved in some ways and probably are, but much remains broken and one of the places that is creaking and groaning and needs some grease is the Veterans Benefits Administration.
I am speaking on behalf of a 76-year-old veteran, we will call “Bill.” He’s a veteran of more than one Vietnam combat tour and has been short-changed by our armed forces and VA for 50 years. It is still happening and it is outrageous.
“Would you please tell anybody who cares to listen that COVID is not an excuse for not doing your job?” said one of the clinical professionals who has been treating this veteran. A lot of us are still working. It’s no excuse. You cannot delay care on people who are schizophrenic or suicidal because there’s a pandemic.”
I have the veteran’s permission to share this. I will not name him because of privacy. I am a clinical professional. I have never burned a source in 43 years in news writing and I will not break confidences as a clinical professional.
In 1970, this veteran returned to the U.S. midway through a second tour in Vietnam. He had a brother also serving in combat and that was one reason he was sent home. Also, he had a psych exam “in country” and that likely was another reason.
Bill was a combat engineer. He did mine sweeping, drove trucks, built stuff and served amid the rocket and mortar attacks on his base near the embattled border between North and South Vietnam called the DMZ.
He already completed one Vietnam hitch, re-enlisted, was promoted to corporal and sent back. Then he was sent home.
The Marine Corps sent him to Camp Lejeune — a place with water so Superfund contaminated from the 1950s through the 1980s, that VA approves you for disability rating and compensation. But not our guy. Not so far.
Told that he would be sent out on a ship, he walked away for a few weeks, what is called Unauthorized Absence. Of course he did. He had claustrophobia and was afflicted by what would not be diagnosed for another decade — Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
That’s where the wrong done this veteran started. Traumatized, instead of approving a Medical-Honorable Discharge, he was sent home with General Discharge Under Honorable Conditions. A bad call by military authority, military medicine and never corrected.
About 35 years later — with the Iraq and Afghan wars raging — he made a PTSD claim. It was rejected — again, an erroneous finding on his psychological condition. History informs this happened a lot in the early 2000s. It’s more injustice.
A year ago, a renewed claim got filed for Bill. A year later, it still hangs in limbo. The VA approved a 10% rating for his ears ringing. They still haven’t released a finding on high blood pressure and a heart condition, even though the tests were done six months ago. And the VA took no action on his PTSD, except to refer to the erroneous 2008 finding.
Three clinical professionals, including a VA MD psychiatrist concluded Bill suffers combat-related PTSD. The benefits unit responded as if they never received that claim, even though there is confirmation by mail it was received. What gives?
Multitudes of veterans — how many thousands or tens of thousands is hard to know — await validation of legitimate claims.
We have been told by congressional staff that things are not moving at the VA because of COVID. I agree with my colleague. It’s no excuse. On point, my colleague is paid via Mission Act and Community Care Network and says he and other longtime community professionals aren’t being paid and are being dropped from network and no one in the VA can or will explain.
This is what broken means. Marine vet Bill’s claim is misdiagnosed, misclassified and parts of it have gone missing. Misdiagnosed since 1970, misclassified since 2008 and missing in action on legitimate classification for a year.
Bill is 76 years old, lives in a trailer and has trouble paying his bills. A legit finding would help him before his stack of ailments, physical and psych end the life that he put at risk for all of us in Vietnam 50 years ago. Is helping him too much to ask?
Does it take a congressional intervention to achieve some small measure of fairness and equity for Bill? Time is running out.
Dennis Anderson is a licensed clinical social worker at High Desert Medical Group. An Army veteran, he deployed twice with local National Guard troops in Iraq as embedded reporter for the Antelope Valley Press. He works on veterans and community health initiatives.