Just to give you a bit of insight into how messed up our current Veterans Administration system is, listen up. A couple of weeks ago, I received an official letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs. That might not seem like an unusual thing to the casual onlooker: I am, after all, a Gold Star daughter.
However, I haven’t received any such letters or mailings since I did the investigative work into my father’s death while writing AFTER THE FLAG HAS BEEN FOLDED (HarperCollins). Back then, I would often get letters on official letterhead apprising me of the current development in my search for my father’s military records.
But that’s been a decade ago.
And the strange thing about this particular letter was that it came to me at my current address. Many of you know that Tim and I made a significant move over the past few months. We sold our home in Eastern Oregon and moved to Central Oregon. We are talking hundreds of miles. Not just up the road a’piece.
The thing is when we made the move, I never got around to sending out any change of address to any of our friends or families. People who wanted to know my address texted me. This is the age of Social Media, however. It’s not like you have to go through John Bolton to get my address if you so desire it. These things are fairly easy to find nowadays. Anyone can stalk. (Should you wish to send me chocolates, flowers or money, I’ll be happy to provide you with my current address).
Still, as far as I knew the VA didn’t have my current address.
Or that’s was my assumption until I got the letter.
Here’s the other odd thing – it didn’t address me by my married name. It was addressed to the name I was given at birth: Karen Spears. There was an official form for an insurance claim attached to the letter.
I was totally befuddled.
As far as I knew there was no reason at all for the VA to be contacting me about a death benefit. Daddy died in ’66. Mama in ’12. And, trust me, the VA wasn’t exactly Johnny-on-the-Spot with making sure anyone got any death benefits during either of those events.
Not much has changed since ’66, it seems.
Shall I share the letter with you?
Dear Ms. Spears:
We were recently notified of the death of RAYMOND J SCHAAF. Please accept our apologies.
In case by now you are wondering, how come I didn’t tell you about the death of my loved one, Raymond, it’s because, well, I don’t know any Raymond J. Schaaf.
Reading that first line, I felt a bit of guilt at not having grieved Raymond. I went through a mental checklist of all the Raymonds I knew, just to make sure I hadn’t slighted a friend. Did I need to send a card to his family? Flowers? Gosh.
But then I realized, nope. I didn’t know as Raymond J. Schaaf.
And if he was naming me as his beneficiary, that would be weird. (But go ahead and feel free to name me as yours, if you like. I mean, if you are reading this, it’s likely we know each other in some circle. I promise to attend your memorial and place flowers upon your grave to thank you for your generosity).
The letter went on:
In the latest beneficiary designation of record, the insured named ELIZABETH A. SCHAFF to receive the government life insurance proceeds. If she has not already submitted a claim, please have her complete the enclosed VA form 29-4125 and return it with a copy of the insured’s death certificate in the envelop provided. If the death certificate does not include the cause of death, enclose a statement from the attending physician attesting to the cause, or an amended death certificate which includes the information.
If you are discombobulated over why the VA sent me the letter, I understand. Trust me. I had barely gotten over my guilt over not grieving the death of this veteran I didn’t know, now here I was tasked by the VA to track down his widow and help her obtain the monies due her.
And I don’t even know her.
Thankfully, the VA did provide a phone number for me to call if I had any questions. I had a bunch of them. So I called the number. Those of you who’ve tried to reach the VA for any reason by phone are undoubtedly wincing by now. It took me about four or five attempts over the course of a week before I was able to unlock that secret code that allows a mere civilian like myself to get an actual living person on the other end (God, how I miss the party line days when you could just pick up the phone attached to the wall by a long cord and demand that Mable get the VA on the line. And she would do it, too. Patch you right into a real person. I swear hell isn’t a lake of fire. It’s an eternity spent trying to by-pass Siri and all the other nebulous computer voices on the other end of the line. Siri, btw, doesn’t believe in hell. Just ask her).
“I’m calling because I got this letter about a death benefit,” I began.
“How can I help you?” the VA associate responded.
“The death benefit isn’t for me,” I replied. “In fact, I don’t even know the veteran who died.”
“If you don’t know the veteran, don’t worry about the letter,” she replied. “We’re just trying to track down somebody who does, so we can make sure his beneficiary gets their monies.”
“Umm, okay. But why would you send the letter to me? What do I have to do with this man?”
“Just throw the letter away,” she stated again.
“But why did you send it to me?”
“We just Googled people associated with this man.”
“But how did you come up with my name as being associated with a man I don’t know?”
“Somebody probably typed his name into Google,” she said, non-pulsed.
“You typed his name into Google? This is how the VA tracks down next-of-kin? You send out letters to random people you find on Google?”
“Just throw the letter away if it doesn’t have anything to do with you.” The VA employee was getting testy now. She didn’t like me mocking her Googling ways.
“But if I throw the letter away, how will his people get his money? And how did you come up with MY NAME and MY ADDRESS in connection to poor Raymond? May he rest in peace.”
“I told you, somebody probably typed it in Google, looking for next-of-kin.”
“Yeah. But I’m not next-of-kin. I didn’t even know this faithful veteran. He probably died of some Agent Orange cause, didn’t he? You probably owe this family a lot more money than this, don’t you? I know how you are, always denying those Agent Orange claims. Always trying to deny these veterans the care they need. Why weren’t you in touch with his family before he died, huh?”
Okay. I didn’t really say all that to the VA employee but I did think it.
“Just throw the letter away,” she said, exasperated and eager to get to the next caller on hold.
“I can’t. The government has tasked me with finding poor Raymond’s widow. I don’t even know if she goes by Liz or Beth, or maybe she goes by Betty. Or Lizzie. Or maybe she goes by Elizabeth. How am I supposed to help her get her monies when I don’t even know her name. And by the way HOW DID YOU GET MY ADDRESS? We just moved. How did you get my new address?”
“I told you. We Googled it.”
“No wonder the VA is so screwed up,” I replied. “You are relying on Google. Lord. God. I hope Robert Mueller has better investigative techniques than you all do.”
Please, somebody, help. If you knew Raymond J. Schaaf or his widow Elizabeth, please send my condolences and tell her that the VA needs her to complete the form if she wants to collect the monies the government owes her.
Karen Spears Zacharias is the author of CHRISTIAN BEND (Mercer University Press). If you want to leave her money, apparently all you have to do is Google her.