I Help Returning Soldiers Get Benefits: 5 Sad Realities
Filing for benefits as a veteran of war should be a simple matter: A soldier walks into a bank, slaps one War Voucher on the counter, the teller pulls a chain, and our deserving vet endures a modest but purposeful money shower. Money that they can exchange for healthcare, housing, or a super bitchin' Go-Kart, depending on their needs. Sadly, this is not the case. Applying for benefits is a nightmare quest that can take years. I'm a lawyer that specializes in helping vets through this process, and I can tell you that ...
Filing For Benefits Is A Bureaucratic Labyrinth
How difficult could it possibly be for a vet to file for benefits? For some of my clients, if you stacked the case file end-to-end, the paperwork would be taller than the veteran themselves. The process can last for decades. I've helped Vietnam vets. I've even helped the spouses and families of World War II vets.
The process is so convoluted that it'd take the whole article to fully explain it, but, in short, there are four different stages that a claim can go through and four different offices that can review it. Things can go wrong at any time: The vet might be missing one key piece of documentation at any stage, so they get denied. They appeal the decision but still don't have the documentation they need, so they take a lovely boat ride down denial. We lawyers call the process "the hamster wheel."
One client made it to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (the supreme court of veterans' claims) before being chucked back to the regional office and told to start all over again. He looked at me and said, "I just thought I'd file for this and get it. I never thought I'd have to go to war over this."
To win their claim, a veteran needs to prove they have a disability, and they need to prove it came due to their time in service. This often requires a formal medical opinion from a doctor, but you also need to provide every piece of paper ever to do with that case, going back decades. That includes service records, medals awarded, in-service medical treatment records, VA hospital visits, private doctor records, copies of past decisions by the VA, and possibly even detailed disciplinary records from kindergarten just to see if your injury might be related to drinking paste.
I don't charge clients, but there'll never be enough pro bono lawyers. As for the conventional kind of lawyer, well, there are rules limiting how much they can be paid. Twenty percent on the first month's payment -- that's it. Now, it's great that vulnerable vets aren't being exploited, but an attorney who wins a two-year case will maybe see a couple hundred bucks, and that would be an unusually large payment. One attorney we partnered with had to handle over 500 appeals a year to earn a living. That means that hardly anyone is willing to work in this field of the law, and those who do can never give a single case the attention it deserves.
It's enough to turn a man to drinking. Ah, sweet Lady Paste, soother of jangled nerves.
Sometimes, The VA Takes Money From Vets
The VA offers about $1,000 a month to vets who are now senior citizens or have sufficiently serious non-service-connected injuries (I had one guy who lost an arm in a motorcycle accident). This pension is only to supplement any other income you're receiving, to bring it up to $1,000 -- if you have $200 in income, your VA pension will be $800 a month. So if the VA finds out you have any other sources of income, they turn into a collections agency.
One time, I had a client who was homeless, unemployed, and lived in a shelter. While he was waiting for his pension to come in, he had been doing some work around the shelter, earning some money on the side for it. The VA finally approved his claim and mailed him a check (the VA always mails a lump sum covering the time between when you file and when they award the claim). Then they learned about that couple hundred bucks he got from the shelter and demanded he pay it to the VA.
I had another vet who'd been collecting $800 in Social Security and a $930 VA pension. The VA considered that double-dipping and sent him a letter saying that not only were they going to cut his pension but he also now owed the VA for all the extra money that they had paid him (and that he had spent just existing) in the meantime. He carted around an oxygen tank just to breathe. He couldn't live off $1,000 a month.
The best advice we could give those guys was to file an economic hardship waiver and ask the VA to forgive the debt. And to play devil's advocate, the VA is completely, totally right on this. As a matter of law. But to go after a homeless war veteran over a couple hundred bucks caused by bureaucratic delay? Meanwhile, the military will give $40,000 away to whoever finds their hidden red balloons? Balloons are super fun -- and often shiny! -- but those priorities are pretty skewed.
PTSD Is Extremely Common But Can Be Impossible To Prove
PTSD claimants have to prove their injury and also prove they got it during their time in the military. The second part can be hard ("I was in a literal war zone" apparently isn't always persuasive enough to the VA).
One veteran broke down sobbing, telling me how he had to haul the dead bodies of some of his friends, throw them onto a helicopter, and then go right back to fighting. That unit lost a significant number of men, some to friendly fire. He told me he has no idea if his hands killed some of his fellow soldiers or not. An African-American veteran told me about the time he almost died because of a trap set by some of the racist members in his unit. He wants to move to Africa because he doesn't feel safe around white people anymore. The machine he was working on -- the one his cohorts rigged -- could've shredded him to death, but he has no physical injury and therefore can't prove what happened. He had a diagnosis of PTSD but not the proof of cause that the VA demands.
PTSD is not a very common mental illness -- the only people I've ever seen who had it outside of a war zone got it because they were the victim of a violent crime or sexual assault. Even without physical injuries to back his story up, the odds are pretty damn high that this guy didn't get PTSD from a bad WOW raid. And even if he did, what's the harm in paying anyway? Worst-case, the VA would be paying for the care of a veteran whose disability was incurred outside of service. You know anybody who'd be upset about that?
All this caution is meant to catch liars, but I've never seen the detailed stacks of irrelevant paperwork or lengthy reviews expose a lie. Lies are incredibly easy to disprove and never make it far into the process. And, again, why are we erring on the side of denying claims instead of helping vets? Does it really make sense to place this much of a burden on the veterans to prove their claims? I have friends who work for defense contractors, and I can tell you, nothing else military-related errs on the side of frugality. This is the same government whose military will spend $640 million to build a single ship that the Coast Guard doesn't even want.
One client's claim was dead on arrival because the National Archives caught fire. The VA sent him a letter saying, "Your service records were burned up in a fire, so we're denying your claim." (They somehow restrained themselves from adding "sucks to be you" as a postscript.)
The vet responded by taking his family hostage.
He held his family at gunpoint in a stand-off with local police. When I visited them afterward, he seemed rather pleasant. "But he has something wrong in his head," his wife explained, somewhat unnecessarily. He's not with his family anymore. Without treatment, he realized he was a threat to them, and he left. I looked through his records later, and there was a place where he had to list his marital status. He put "separated." The form had a space to explain the status: He wrote, "Because I love them."
The Government Knows Exactly How Much A Soldier's Life Is Worth
The VA has surprisingly solid numbers for exactly how much the human body is worth. One client of mine who served in Iraq got leishmaniasis, a parasite spread by sand flies. Here's a photo of what that looks like:
If their claim is approved, someone with sores like that gets a disability rating of 10 percent. That earns them monthly benefits of around $150. Had a finger blown off in combat? That'll get you a rating of 10 percent to 20 percent -- which will get you about $250 a month from the VA. Suffered injuries to your legs and need to walk with a cane? That'll get you 30 percent: $400 a month. Lost your dominant arm (and I mean the entire arm, shoulder down)? That's 60 percent and will net you a little more than $1,000 a month. Are you 100 percent disabled, meaning you can't hold down a job of any kind? That's a little less than $3,000 a month. That's the most any soldier's livelihood is worth: $36,000 a year.
But it's not always that simple. Gulf War syndrome is a collection of symptoms experienced by vets from the first Gulf War, and to this day no one knows the cause (suggestions have included sarin, pesticides, anthrax vaccines, uranium, oil fires, and excessive Hammer time). Twenty-five years after the Gulf War ended, I'm still filing claims for people with Gulf War syndrome. Here's the Catch-22 that caught them: The disease is so vague, they have to prove they suffer from a "chronic, undiagnosed, multisymptom disorder." If doctors can diagnose it, with anything, then it's not Gulf War syndrome, and they get no benefits.
Then there's Vietnam, the "Vietnam" of wars. America dropped Agent Orange on the country to destroy 10,000 square miles of forest, and it did horrible things to a million or more Vietnamese. Any American who served in the Vietnam War is assumed to be exposed if they set foot on Vietnamese soil for a mere five minutes. You always have to prove your service is what gave you your disability, but Agent Orange is an exception -- every Vietnam vet with diabetes or certain types of cancer is presumed to have gotten it from Agent Orange, and they get their benefits almost automatically. You won the lottery!
The prize is crippling amorphous illness.
Sometimes It Actually Has A Happy Ending
I often find myself looking at the aftermath of a case and wondering if I made a difference. The times when you know for certain are preciously rare, but they make it all worth it.
One of my clients fell in the service and hurt his back. He's had problems on and off for decades, and now he's in a wheelchair. He filed at one point, got denied and discouraged, and let it drop. A few years later, he filed again, and that's when he came to me for help. I requested his service records, asked if his doctor was willing to write an opinion, and Doc wrote back the most perfect letter you could ever imagine. And finally, my guy finally got his benefits after all these years.
Another client lost his leg to diabetes from Agent Orange exposure. Despite the almost automatic approval of such claims, this one was denied. His declining health cost him his job as a welder, so he and his wife lived in a trailer and sold scrap metal to supplement their social security. But we helped him with his claim and the VA realized they'd wrongly rejected him. They sent him his long overdue payments in one lump sum of $96,000.
"It's like winning the lotto," he said.
Hope that case didn't bankrupt the government. The same government whose military readily spends $1.5 trillion on a plane that still can't fly.
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For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Things Nobody Understands About PTSD (Thanks To Movies) and 5 Realities Of Using Ecstasy To Treat Veterans With PTSD.
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