Let’s remember Veterans on other days

The air is crisp, the sky bright blue, the leaves have passed their red-orange peak and are falling around the headstones of those who gave our nation their lives.

As I am writing this column on Veterans Day 2008, the sacrifices of our fallen military heroes are being remembered, briefly but respectfully, on the morning television news. But as you are reading this column, the sacrifices of our military veterans will already have been pushed back to their traditional place on the lowest rung of your government’s agenda ladder. Our nation’s leaders will have moved on to their own urgent priorities: The closing of one presidency, the opening of another; the convening of the new Congress.

Bill Florey, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, has been gone now for three years and eleven months. But his story is emblematic of one Washington problem that can be easily and expeditiously solved — if our new president and Congress are truly willing to pay their respects to those whom we honored on Veterans Day before we forgot them again.

A Gulf War Army veteran, Florey developed a rare cancer after being exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons that the U.S. Army detonated inadvertently at Khamisiyah, Iraq. Delays and failures in treatment left him horribly disfigured as cancer spread undetected to his brain. And a VA adjudicator coldly rejected Florey’s modest request for service-related disability compensation, ruling it was “less likely than not” that Iraqi chemicals caused his cancer.

The VA made this guesstimate without checking its data that would have proven the merits of his claim. Florey died on New Year’s Day, 2005 — six months later, a government study showed it was actually twice as likely that chemical exposure caused Florey’s cancer. (I first reported Florey’s story in my book, “Vets Under Siege” published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press.)

The saddest thing about Florey’s story is that there are many thousands more just like it.

In the Iraq war, a roadside bomb cost national guardsman Garrett Anderson, of Champaign, Ill., his right arm, broke his jaw and left his body riddled with shrapnel. The VA approved service-related benefits for his arm and jaw — but not for those shrapnel wounds. In a mind-boggling, never-explained ruling, the VA adjudicator actually wrote: “Shrapnel wounds all over body not service connected.” Not service connected? Where and how did the VA conclude his whole body got riddled with shrapnel?

Thousands of claims filed by veterans have been delayed for years — a number for a decade and longer. Claims are bounced back and forth, as denials are appealed, reviewers support the veterans, but adjudicators find new ways to say no again. Opinions by lawyers and judges become as thick as telephone books. More than 13,700 veterans have died awaiting their appeals — and when they die, their claims die with them.

Many dedicated people work in the VA, but too often, it performs like a Department of Veterans Adversaries. Too many adjudicators act as if their job is to deny as many claims as possible — and force veterans to battle the bureaucracy lawyers and prove it wrong. We need to reverse the process — and we can start by renaming the VA. Call it the Department of Veterans’ Advocacy. Send the message clearly that the VA’s job is to make the fairest case for the veterans — not against them — to calculate the full service-related benefits they have earned.

This week the Vietnam Veterans of America and Veterans of Modern Warfare filed a lawsuit to require the VA to reduce its time for processing claims to 90 days and appeals to 180 days — or provide interim financial aid to veterans who are left waiting longer than that.

We owe nothing less than that to the men and women who fought our battles.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)