Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Military Teaches Soldiers Strength; the VA Teaches Veterans to Beg

This article originally appeared on The Daily Beast on 30 August 2013.

I come from a family of combat vets. We have all been fortunate enough to make it home, from WWII, Vietnam, and for me, Iraq. Military service is a family tradition, as is bitching about the VA. Dinner conversations include horror stories about wait times, neglect, and endless red tape. Often lost in the cycle of stories about VA screw-ups and VA reforms (inevitably followed by more stories of VA screw-ups) is the demoralizing affect that the process has on individuals by taking the very values the military teaches—integrity, hard work, accountability—and undermining them by making veterans act like beggars.

The term “red tape” in America actually derives from Civil War veterans’ records being bound together in the stuff. The story of veterans getting stiffed by the government is an American tradition going back at least 150 years. In the present day, while bill payments can be done online and any song ever recorded is instantly accessible, we are still using a paper-based VA system that has the upshot of being noncompatible with the Department of Defense system used for tracking active-duty soldiers.

Veterans are proud characters, used to standing on their own feet. And while self-sufficiency is a central part of the military ethos, reintegrating into civilian life can be difficult and require some assistance, particularly for those with injuries and mental traumas incurred during their service.

Only 0.5 percent of Americans have served in the post-9/11 era, compared with 9 percent during the height of WWII. The burden of fighting for the country continues to fall on the shoulders of the few. When veterans have to fight for the benefits they are owed, it alienates them even further from the rest of the country that did not serve.

Following multiple tours, veterans can come home and feel isolated in their own communities. It’s difficult enough discussing their time overseas with friends and neighbors; most are in no rush to introduce a new uncomfortable topic: problems with the VA over disability ratings and payment. The outcome is that they become further estranged and often bitter both toward the government that fails to honor its commitments and the civilian population that has not fought harder to force the issue.

How can insurance companies and banks—also large organizations processing thousands of compensation claims daily—succeed in processing within reasonable time frames but the VA cannot? The answer, simply, is a lack of political will and accountability.

The VA once had to close a facility because the huge number of files piled up made the building structurally unsound and unsafe to work in. Recent congressional testimony revealed that the Baltimore VA office was late on 81 percent of its claims, though speed may not be the answer, given the additional revelation that errors were made in 26 percent of claims processed by that office.

Asking for help is hard enough; making vets act like supplicants with their hands out is an insult.
As soldiers, veterans were used to counting on the government. Paychecks came on time and family health care was readily available. Everything they needed to do their job was made available—if not immediately and in perfect order, at least predictably and with a system of accountability for when things went wrong. Imagine the position of a veteran who leaves that sort of environment, finds that the benefits promised as job payment are suddenly unavailable, that the government reneged on its word and the only option for recourse involves automated systems and faceless bureaucrats.

It often goes like this: You visit a VA facility, file a claim, and wait months for an acknowledgment by mail. You submit relevant medical evidence, service records, and statements supporting your claim and wait months for another acknowledgment. Repeat this process several more times as you’re asked for additional evidence.

Your claim file may be shuffled between different VA facilities in different cities or it may be lost completely—keep in mind that none of this is digitized. The VA and the post office: the last two true paper pushers left in America.

Meanwhile, your life goes on. Your service-related injuries may become worse. The VA can’t cope with changes in contact details or conditions, so God forbid you move or have a new development not documented in the papers you submitted months ago. After dealing with all of this, often the VA will reject the claim outright and the process begins again with an appeal. Even if it is approved there may be an unexplained delay or error in receiving payment.

You are not entitled to be kept informed about the progress of your claim; calling their office won’t help. You may write to the VA, but you will either receive no reply or an automated response. You may try to use the VA’s eBenefits online system to check your status and submit evidence, but it is never updated. You will find, if you were told something in a previous communication with the VA, that it may be wholly untrue but there is no special effort made by the VA to correct mistakes.

The VA, despite repeated claims of its reform, remains mysterious to those who depend on it and the process can makes veterans feel small and powerless. For many the idea of asking for help is hard enough, but making them feel as if they are supplicants, with their hands out for a favor, is an insult. Add to this the thinly veiled accusations by some that the system is filled with false claims and veterans are “freeloaders” and the insult becomes unbearable.

Now, in the wake of Congress’s self-imposed sequestration, some think-tankers, career civil servants, and congressional staffers on both sides of the political spectrum are pushing for trimming veterans’ and military benefits. Veterans’ benefits have been spared from sequestration directly but are being eyed indirectly by bean counters who seem unbothered by asking vets to sacrifice even more for their country.

Veterans’ benefits are not over-generous entitlements. Entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are open to every citizen who pays into them, and even some who do not, and troops pay these taxes like everyone else. Veterans’ benefits such as VA health care are earned through years of service and designed to care and compensate for injuries and losses incurred while serving. These benefits are not a luxury or the thanks of a grateful nation; they are part of a service contract.

Being a veteran in America has never been an easy road. We win the wars but come home to see our own battles lost every time. From the red tape of the Civil War, the WWI veterans’ bonus march, Agent Orange in Vietnam, and the newest generation’s continuing fight against post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, unemployment, homelessness, and suicide, justice for American veterans is slow to come. It’s an American tradition overdue for change.