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’ posttraumatic 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 cold 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 with shrapnel? 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’ advocates.
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.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)