For the past year I have been traveling with a disabled veteran back and forth to the VA hospital in Boise, Idaho. This veteran lives in a remote area of Oregon, which makes Boise the nearest VA hospital for him.
This complicates things, naturally. Having veterans go out-of-state for care creates havoc on state budgets. We have long known that one of the problems with veterans care is that those veterans who live in the rural areas have a much more difficult time of obtaining consistency in care. They often have to travel long distances to reach VA clinics, or hospitals. Such is the case with the veteran I’ve been escorting. This is also true for Gold Star families – widows, mothers, children. The more rural a community they live in, the less likely they are to access the benefits afforded them.
Fortunately for me, I have a wide circle of contacts in the veteran community. In other words, I know people. So whenever I was faced with a problem in getting help for this veteran, I knew people I could call. Like anything else in the business world, networking is crucial.
The number of veterans filing for disability is not surprisingly on the rise. NPR reported that nearly half of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have filed for disability. Double the rate of any previous wars. There are a wide variety of reasons for this, not the least of which is multiple deployments.
Here are a few things that may help you help a veteran:
– The veteran I worked with never signed up for benefits because he mistakenly assumed that he didn’t deserve them. He had not deployed to the front lines. He was a Gulf War era veteran. He was injured on the job in Germany. An injury that then got infected and sent him via life-flight to a hospital. That injury left him disabled. Yet, he never signed up for the benefits rightly due him because he thought if he signed up someone more deserving would not be able to receive benefits.
This is one of the biggest myths. It is not true. In fact, it is just the opposite. The veteran budget is an allocated budget. The fewer people who sign up for it the less money Congress allocates. So when a veteran fails to sign up for benefits he or she earned, they are in essence taking money out of the budget for veterans.
– The very first thing a person who is disabled ought to do is sign up with the Disabled America Veterans. The DAV is the most important connection a veteran can make. This organization knows what it is doing. Yes, the first visit is tedious. There is a lot of paperwork to tend to. Many veterans don’t have the patience for this sort of thing but once a veteran is in the DAV system, the DAV reps do a fabulous job of assessing exactly what the process for help needs to be. And when a ruling is made, the DAV is equipped to appeal that ruling, if need be. If you know a veteran in need of assistance, the very best thing you can do for them is to take them by the hand and lead them to the nearest DAV. If you like to support military organizations, the DAV is one of the best out there. Support them.
– Do go ahead and sign up online at http://www.va.gov/ The veteran I am working with does not own a computer and has no experience at all on computers. He is not tech-savvy. I was able to register him because of my knowledge of online procedures. It takes time and some personal history but you can get a veteran signed into the system. This is important for scheduling, etc.
– Don’t just tell a veteran he or she is entitled to care. Take them to the VA yourself. Or find somebody who can accompany them. It is stressful. It takes a clear head to work one’s way through the maze of information and to figure out which clinic. Sometimes this entailed long walks from one clinic to the next. Not an easy thing for a disabled person. They need the support, emotionally, and often they need the physical help as well. Be prepared for long waits. Expect that people will direct you the wrong way. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, repeatedly, until you are clear about where you go next.
– It took nine months of checking in before the veteran was finally issued a VA card. The system was undergoing a change and for nine months that new system was down, not working, etc. This could be frustrating. Best to keep a sense of humor about you.
– Be prepared to be evaluated by a slew of doctors. The veteran I worked with had to see orthopedics, x-rays, audio, physical therapists, and a psychologist. That last one was an interview that lasted eight hours. I was unable to be there that day and needless to say it was a grueling day for the veteran. Remind your veteran that he/she is no longer in the military and they don’t have to sit still for that length of time. What professional keeps a person through lunch with no breaks as part of an evaluation? This veteran was there all day long, answering hours worth of questions. It was too much and should have been stopped. If you are a veteran being subjected to such treatment, get up and leave. No psych evaluation ought to last more than two hours. If they need more time, schedule another visit.
– Patience is the number one necessity when dealing with all things veterans. I told the veteran going in that it typically takes a year for the VA to make a decision about benefits. His was a little over a year and now it is being appealed, so it is going to be even longer. Meanwhile, he is getting treatment for his medical issues and will soon be undergoing surgery to try and rectify the damage done a quarter of a century ago.
It is not enough to tell veterans that help is available to them. If you know a veteran or military family member who is in need of medical care, offer to escort them. Chances are that all of this is too overwhelming for them. Often what they need most is a friend who will ensure that they get the health care they have earned.
Karen Zacharias is a Gold Star daughter and author of After the Flag has been Folded, (William Morrow).