When The VA Says "No" There May Be A Good Reason
Commentary by Jim Strickland on how "gaming the system" hurts all veterans.
Read your latest Mailbag. The issue of vets believing that VA disability compensation can never be taken away is one of education (yes, it can).
What bothers me is the usually related belief that once you receive VA disability compensation it SHOULD never be taken away (yes, it should).
This is fundamentally a different issue, but one that reveals a lot, not just about some veterans, but also about society in general in my opinion.
VA disability compensation is just that, compensation for a disability. It is not, and should not be, a lifetime achievement award for somehow getting through the VA adjudicatory maze.
If you have service-connected cancer you should be compensated for it. If you HAD service-connected cancer, but are now in remission and have no physical restrictions, you should NOT get compensation for it. If you lost a leg in combat, it is ridiculous to require follow-up exams, but for transient or curable conditions it makes sense and enables (at least theoretically) fair use of the available funds.
Why is that a difficult concept and why are so many vets upset when VA says "Hey, you are no longer disabled, so you no longer get disability."???
I get (too) many calls from vets who want me to stop VA from taking away their compensation for conditions from which they no longer suffer or at least cannot get any physician to support their claims. What turned these people from service members who wouldn't go to sick call because they would leave their buddies shorthanded to served members willing to deny seriously sick and injured buddies the compensation they really need to benefit themselves???
As you know, I am no fan of VA. Of course, VA continues to abuse the system in some cases and deserving vets get swept up in ridiculous reduction actions and I am proud to fight for those vets. But some days you just want to choke some people . . .
Anyways, thanks for all you do and for letting me vent.
You write to me as a fierce advocate for veterans. As a lawyer, you have been in the trenches doing battle and you receive small recompense compared to the other sort of legal work you could choose to do. You are a veterans veteran with distinguished military service.
Like me, you're frustrated by the veterans who try to game the system for personal gain.
The recent "Mailbag" article you reference brought the usual comments to my in-box. http://vawatchdog.org/09/nf09/nffeb09/nf022609-4.htm As usual, any time I question the veracity of any claim by any veteran I get a bag of mail that questions my ancestry, my credentials and my status as a "real" veteran. I've been named "Jim Fonda" because I dared to question a veteran about a claim.
When they write to me, what I hear first and foremost is along the lines of, "I served. I have a condition. I have no real proof that my condition is either disabling or connected to my military service. However, I believe that it is. I've told VA I believe my condition is both disabling and service connected. That should be enough for VA to approve my claim. Besides, I really need the money."
My thoughts on the issue are clear. I believe that even the most minor condition that was caused or contributed to by honorable military service is deserving of compensation. That includes hemorrhoids. Hemorrhoids aren't funny nor are they a minor condition. The pain and loss of blood can surely be physically disabling. I believe that hemorrhoids are often service connected. Anyone who ever sat on a bench in the back of an old deuce and a half day after day for miles of travel can attest that your bottom takes one hell of a beating. Bathrooms aren't convenient and the cold C-Rations don't promote good bowel health.
What was not on their minds was snoring.
Snoring, the most obvious sign of the condition commonly known as Sleep Apnea, is a common condition across humankind. I seem to have stirred up a hornet's nest when I agreed with an RSVR that Sleep Apnea is one of the conditions most often abused by those who game the system. That RSVR noted that many savvy service members manage to get a sleep study right before discharge. The majority of patients who get a sleep study will walk away with a C-PAP machine and a diagnosis of Sleep Apnea.
There is no doubt that Sleep Apnea is a very serious condition. The "Apnea" part of the equation is that normal breathing may be interrupted by periods of total lack of oxygen due to the obstructive disease of the upper airway. This can precipitate heart attacks, strokes, daytime drowsiness and a host of other conditions.
Without too much argument it's easy to see that whether or not you served, as an American you're likely to be a bit overweight and pop a Valium every now and then. Maybe you even drink a refreshing adult beverage or two before retiring and then your spouse complains of your loud snoring. Perhaps you're one of the few that still smoke tobacco so your respiratory system isn't functioning very well anyhow.
If that applies to you, you may experience Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA).
Then there are the veterans like my friend at Walter Reed Hospital. He's been there a while now as his face gets rebuilt. He was in Ramadi one bright and sunny day last year and exited his vehicle to stretch his legs and get a better view of the surrounding territory. An insurgent sniper thought my friend's head made a pretty good target so he let go a round and caught the guy in the back of his neck, just about where it connects to his brains.
As luck would have it, the 7.62 mm slug traveled around under the skin and outside his skull and then the path took a slight upwards slant to exit at the level of his front teeth. It took out his left jawbone, all but 8 teeth, some nose and a piece of his tongue.
He was smashed face first forward into the sand with the brutal impact and bled profusely. While his fire team began to let the sniper know just how they felt about all that, a corpsman jumped to the Marine's aid and gave him a field tracheostomy, inserting a breathing tube into his windpipe via a hole he punched in his neck right below the cricoid cartilage. This is often called a cricothyroidostomy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracheotomy
A quick evacuation to a field hospital, then Landstuhl and then Walter Reed came along and today he's doing well.
My friend has Obstructive Sleep Apnea. I believe he has earned compensation for it. The service connection is apparent. The condition is also apparent. He meets the criteria.
On the other hand, the veteran who applies for compensation for their OSA condition 10 years after discharge because they heard from a buddy that they can get free money if they can get someone to verify that they snored during their service does not deserve anything.
I receive a variety of letters from veterans who are fighting hard to get their slice of the pie. They heard from someone else that I'll help.
Recently the female vet pleaded that I was her last hope. The RO and BVA had denied her a number of times for her heart disease condition. She had been out of the service for a couple of decades when she had a heart attack. She was an obese smoker, recently divorced and losing her home. She'd had heart stents put in place in a civilian setting and without insurance, the bills were killing her.
Her rationale for her heart disease having been caused by her military service was a recorded bout of flu in boot camp. She asked VA for 100% disability and was denied.
I agreed with VA.
A veteran of the GWOT wrote to ask my help with his PTSD claim. His VARO and a DRO had denied his claims twice. He had no combat experience. His PTSD was related to having witnessed an aircraft make a hard landing...from a considerable distance. He had a "buddy letter" supporting his statement that he had witnessed the event. There was no other record of the event documented. The veteran was not involved in any rescue. He was never in any danger. It seemed that the aircraft wasn't badly damaged and he didn't know of any casualties.
I agreed with VA.
Another veteran wrote of his recent diagnosis of hepatitis. VA had denied him service connection and disability compensation but had approved a pension as he was very low income. He wished for the higher paying disability compensation. His service was wholly unremarkable and had been spent in Hawaii. He had no sea duty, no combat and had served after the age of the multi-dose injector guns. After his ETS he confessed to years of alcoholism and intravenous drug abuse. He declared that he always used a clean needle so that couldn't have been the cause of his hepatitis.
I agreed with VA.
I also told him he was fortunate that he received a VA pension. Had it been my decision to make, he wouldn't have.
I could go on with dozens of similar pleas for help and I could write thousands of words about the undeserving veterans who are clogging the system with their cases. I won't.
Just because you served is not a carte blanche that lasts forever. There is no free lunch. Somehow, somewhere, the money that pays for disability compensation benefits must be found. There aren't any money trees and each time a dollar is given to one veteran, that dollar is taken from another federal program somewhere.
Disability compensation dollars come from your taxes. You are paying for those veterans who are gaming the system. If you're one of those who write to me whining incessantly about my attitude towards those who I believe are gaming the VA, how about we make the process simpler?
The next time I believe it's a charlatan who only wants more money, I'll let you share your benefit directly with them. You can prove the depth of your commitment to each and every veteran dipping at the well regardless of evidence by putting up your money, not mine. If you believe a guy who has Conjunctivitis (red eyes due to an allergy) should get 20%, give him a bit of yours. If you want to see the tobacco abusing, boozing, overweight snorer be compensated at 30%, put up your dollars friend.
The pie we receive benefits from is limited. That's as it should be. We veterans all share that pie, each deserving vet gets a slice. That a veteran has failed at the game of life isn't always the fault of either the military or the VA. Some folks, whether civilian or veteran, choose to build a nest for themselves that dooms them to such failure.
And it is a choice. I made a choice and I wanted to have a little success in my life. That I suffer physical consequences of my military service is a well established fact. In spite of my injuries, I chose to push on. I don't feel an obligation to those who decided to abuse IV drugs or make other stupid lifestyle choices.
I'll leave it at this...If you earned the benefit, I'll rise up on my hind legs to fight for you. If you didn't earn it, if you're fluffing or falsifying or otherwise stretching your desire for free money too far, I'll do all I can to shut you down.