Martin Schram: Why is VA adversary,
rather than advocate, of vets?
When it comes to war and peace, we indeed
are two Americas.
One fights our nation’s wars. The
other pays those who go to war so the rest of us, our children and our grandchildren, won’t have to.
At least, that is the way it is supposed
to work. But a new book, written by this columnist, details scores of shameful ways in which our nation is failing the men
and women who volunteer to fight our wars in distant lands — and especially when they return home and discover they
must battle anew, this time with their own government, just to get treatment and benefits earned long ago.
“Vets Under Siege: How America Deceives
and Dishonors Those Who Fight Our Battles” (Thomas Dunne Books) chronicles more than a half century of tragic tales
of veterans who have been wronged, stacks of dust-gathering studies of delays and denials, official studies followed by official
inaction, as problems festered and veterans suffered.
There is the sad story of Gulf War Army
veteran Bill Florey, who developed a rare cancer after being exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons that the U.S. Army mistakenly
detonated at Khamisiyah, Iraq.
A series of horrendous failures and treatment
delays left him horribly disfigured and cancer-ridden.
Then the VA coldly rejected his modest request
for service-related disability compensation — without even checking its own data that would have proven the merits of
his request. The VA case adjudicator simply asserted in adversarial language that it was “less likely than not”
that Florey’s chemical exposure caused his cancer.
Florey died of his brain cancer on New Year’s
Day, 2005. Six months later, a government study discovered that actually it was twice as likely as not that Florey’s
chemical weapons contamination caused the cancer that killed him.
There is the tale of Eric Adams, a military
policeman from Tampa, Fla., who served in both the Gulf War and the Iraq War. His job in Iraq included leading truck convoys
through dangerous territory. A roadside bomb exploded in front of his convoy and when he braked, a truck smashed into the
rear of his rented van, which had no seat belts.
Back home, a VA adjudicator initially felt
there was inadequate proof that his service even constituted combat conditions!
Then the adjudicator challenged the claim
for treatment of Adams’ post-traumatic stress disorder — even after presidential commission recommendations and
presidential directives that stressed the need to provide proper treatment and compensation to suffering veterans.
When Adams, who’d seen friends killed
in war, showed the VA adjudicator that he had been diagnosed by two VA doctors as suffering from PTSD, the VA changed its
ruling: The new ruling was that, yes, Adams did indeed have PTSD as his VA doctors had diagnosed. But the VA again rejected
his claim — on mind-numbing grounds that this former military policeman could not cite the specific wartime incident
that could be verified as the “stressor” that caused his PTSD.
There was the case of national guardsman
Garrett Anderson, of Champaign, Ill., a truck driver who was interviewed on CNN, after an explosive device cost him his right
arm, broke his jaw and left him with a body riddled with shrapnel.
Anderson didn’t get to collect service-related
benefits payments for the shrapnel wounds because the VA adjudicator actually wrote the following decision: “Shrapnel
wounds all over body not service connected.”
Not service connected?
How else did the VA think he got riddled
Taken together, the tales, statistics and
studies make clear one conclusion: The Department of Veterans Affairs has become infused with a mindset in which senior officials,
mid-level bureaucrats and low level adjudicators have too often acted as veterans’ adversaries, rather than veterans’
The VA adjudicators often function as if
veterans are assumed to be attempting to bilk the government. Veterans are often left to find lawyers to fight their battles
against the VA. This mindset within certain segments of the VA was not addressed by the recent presidential commission’s
recommendations for veterans’ affairs. But no other solutions can succeed until it is recognized and addressed.
One solution: To banish the mindset of a
VA adversarial role, the VA should help veterans gather all information and build their best case for benefits claims.
And to foster a new mindset and instantly
re-badge the bureaucracy, the VA should be renamed as the Department of Veterans’ Advocacy.