Supporting Our Troops?

Jeanine Plant
March 19, 2007

Issue: Young veterans can't access health benefits, job training or education resources.
Why? No education of veterans on potential afflictions and benefits available; Too much paperwork.
Action: Read and help young veterans and their families find community support.

When 24-year-old Steve Mortillo, a former soldier in the Army, was missing one form in order to obtain benefits from the VA, he was advised to fill out a "Notice of Disagreement," a form of appeal which, he said, could take one to four years to process. But knowing better than to file it and sit idly by, he sought out civilian guidance from the Disabled American Veterans -- a national veterans' advocacy group. A representative there told him to file "A Request for Reconsideration," which would take, by considerable contrast, a couple of days to complete his application.

When 28-year-old Charlie Anderson, a former medic in the Navy, initially sought assistance from the VA for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), he received no individual attention; and felt re-traumatized by callous questionnaires that, he said, provoke you to recall painful memories you'd rather forget.

"The VA system is an absolutely treacherous thing to go through," Mortillo said. "They accidentally mailed something to the wrong address, and then they tell me to fill out the Notice of Disagreement."

Anderson knows all about bureaucratic aggravation. He had been diagnosed with PTSD while still a service member, yet it took the Department of Defense months to transfer his medical records to the VA. And then the VA took over a year to complete his claim, which as a rule must conform, at the very least, to the DOD's disability rating -- a numeric percentage reflecting an injured veteran's inability to work. One would think a prior diagnosis would speed things up, but they would be wrong.

"There is no transition," Mortillo said, who without civilian help may never have sought help from the VA in the first place; and despite having served a year in Iraq, he never heard of PTSD. It was only when some Vietnam veterans suggested his hyper-vigilance and high anxiety levels might be indicative of the mental-health affliction that he realized he needed to seek treatment. "There was no attempt to inform me about anything," he said about the military's indifference to one of the signature ailments of the war.

Agonizing paperwork, misinformation, feckless interdepartmental communication, no education on benefits or afflictions - Mortillo's and Anderson's litany of complaints are pretty typical. Despite the surge in media coverage since the Walter Reed scandal broke and an air of shock, Congress members have long been informed about the fundamental, systemic problems impeding the proper care for veterans.

Last October, Amvets -- a Maryland-based veterans' organization -- sponsored a national symposium, "Voices for Action: A Focus on the Changing Needs of Young Veterans." They identified problems with benefits, employment, healthcare, and homelessness, and provided solutions that were critiqued by such experts as former U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Anthony J. Principi. According to Jeffrey Crider, a public relations consultant for Amvets, Congress was given copies of the symposium report on November 9, 2006.

In their sub-committees on benefits and healthcare, the symposium addressed many of Mortillo's and Anderson's criticisms.

For one thing, the report says, young veterans are often ignorant of the benefits they are entitled to and should be educated throughout - from the moment they enlist until they're discharged from the military. There should be better collaboration between the DOD and the VA, so that there is uniform access to electronic medical records. Amvets also suggests that there should be enrollment in the VA upon enlistment. But the steering committee -- the panel of experts who critiqued the recommendations -- did point out that the primary function of the DOD is to provide national protection not veterans' benefits; and it is incumbent upon the veteran to inform him or herself about their entitlements.

But the VA is overwhelming, says Joseph Chenelly, national news director of Amvets. And that seems to be the consensus among veterans. Mortillo thinks the VA system is "designed to make you give up;" while Anderson found it "discouraging and daunting."

"Navigating the VA is like going into a big city without a map," Chenelly said. It's best if a veteran seeks out support, either through an organization like Amvets or through a community of veterans, he said.

And while there are certain safety nets in place, such as the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) sponsored in part by the Department of Labor to ease the shift into civilian life by offering job-search assistance, Chenelly says it's hard for young veterans to make use of them. For example, the TAP is only offered for a few weeks when the veteran comes home, and Chenelly says, their minds are elsewhere.

So part of the problem is not a dearth of programs then, but their implementation. High rates of unemployment and homelessness among veterans confirm this. According to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10.4 percent of 20-to-24-year-old veterans were unemployed in 2006, and it's down from 15.6 percent in 2005. And according to the VA, approximately one-third of the homeless population served in the armed services.

In Anderson's case, the whole application process left him cold, but once he got through it, he insists he got top-notch care.

"They asked me a couple of questions, and they said 'have a nice day.' It makes it less likely that people will keep their appointments, because the entire system is very impersonal; and it makes the veteran feel like they are some sort of inconvenience. It would have improved my perception of the system if they had given me some individualized attention; given me a plan on what will happen between now and Tuesday [when he had his appointment] in case of a crisis. But once I got through that, my counselor was excellent."

Anderson then went through an eight-week educational program on PTSD that he says taught him how to deal with "triggers," or anything that might provoke the onset of symptoms. One-quarter of the group was comprised of Vietnam veterans who, he says, were learning about the disorder in a new way for the first time in thirty years.

The lack of information afforded the Vietnam veterans in that situation calls attention to a feeble PTSD program in the military overall. That Mortillo had not heard of PTSD, despite having served in a platoon with high casualty numbers and having gone through the mandatory exit-interview process, speaks volumes.

"We don't think that the DoD's PTSD screening is enough," said Chenelly. "They go through a survey and that is really the extent of it." Following the end of a deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan, veterans typically answer questions about their mental health. But most veterans are focused on going home or embarrassed to admit they are experiencing symptoms because of the stigma attached to weakness.

According to the symposium report, discrimination against veterans and service members with PTSD is a reality that needs to be remedied. Amvets recommends increased education on the issue from the top down and anti-discriminatory regulations. PTSD does go into remission and should not automatically disqualify a person for service, they argue.

Currently, people are putting a lot of stock into the vast changes coming from the new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates with his swift reprimands of the leadership at Walter Reed. But Crider wrote in an email that "even if DOD fixes Walter Reed, that still will do little to solve the 100-plus problems facing most veterans in their interactions with DOD, the VA, Labor and Homeland Security."

The Walter Reed scandal is merely a case in point, he said. And by his measure, Anderson's and Mortillo's experiences with the VA are exemplary of much larger problems.

"If you took Walter Reed and multiplied it by a thousand times," he said, "that's the magnitude of problems veterans are facing with the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor."

Call to Action:

Email this story to a young veteran or her/his family and friends.

Civilian Resources for Veterans:

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America:
The first group dedicated to the veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they provide help to veterans, speak to the media, and lobby for veterans' rights.

Veterans for America:
They work on news gathering, public education, and legislative efforts. They've created a "survival guide" for service members and veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. They also promote the idea that humanitarian work and national security "go hand-in-hand."

A support and outreach group for Iraq-era veterans by Iraq-era veterans.

Veterans for Peace:
Men and women veterans of all eras come together annually to attend their Veterans for Peace conference. Last August, Ehren Watada spoke for them in Seattle. They are an official NGO represented at the United Nations. "We draw on our personal experiences and perspectives gained as veterans to raise public awareness of the true costs and consequences of militarism and war -- and to seek peaceful, effective alternatives."

Iraq Veterans Against the War:
Health, housing, job training and education resources for young veterans.

Jeanine Plant is a frequent contributor to WireTap and a freelance writer living in New York. Photo by Nina Berman.





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