Screwing the Troops

For a country always at war, the United States is remarkably not interested in taking care of soldiers it has broken in its wars. Having bankrupted the country, Washington sinks every available penny into the two purposes of the military: funneling money into the arms industry, and fueling imperial ambitions, in large part of pasty fern-bar Napoleons at National Review and Commentary. The Veterans Administration is way back in the chow line. It doesn’t work very well. As best I can tell, nobody cares.

What do I mean, it doesn’t work? Consider a vet blinded or nearly so in some war or other. To use a computer, which has come to be necessary life, he needs screen-reader software, such as JAWS. It costs roughly a thousand dollars retail. For a blinded vet, most likely of slight education and no resources beyond his VA compensation, this is a lot of money.

The software could be provided quickly and easily, as follows: The vet fills out an application online, perhaps prints it, signs it, and scans it to the VA. An employee of the VA receives it and keys the veteran’s social-security number into his computer. In two seconds the vet’s records come up. Yep, blind. The VA emails him a URL and download key, by arrangement previously made with the manufacturer of the software. The vet downloads it. End of story. Elapsed time: an hour, plus download.

What really happens? To begin with, the VA is so disorganized, its web sites so badly designed, its technology so primitive, its staffing so inadequate, its unending forms so incomprehensible, that few vets can navigate the system. I can’t. The kid from Tennessee, with a room-temperature IQ and what passes now for a high-school education, doesn’t have a chance. He will simply be ignored. I know this from personal experience. I have sent letter after letter to the educational-benefits office in Buffalo, and nothing comes back. This is common.

So much for supporting our boys in uniform. They are broken goods. What the hell. We can recruit new ones.

The delay and endless often senseless paperwork involved in getting anything is so great that it is easier for disabled vets just to do without or pay for it themselves one way or another. Remember, we are not talking welfare queens or entitlement parasites. These are guys badly hurt in Washington’s wars, brains scrambled by IEDs, legs still somewhere in Afghanistan.
The vet’s only hope is to have smart, tenacious representation, preferably by a lawyer. Few have this. What it comes to is that, in practice, the benefits that are supposed to exist do not. This saves a lot of money. It doesn’t help the vet.

I did have (very) good representation in a matter involving the VA. A career in journalism gives you contacts that men from small towns in the heartlands don’t have. My rep and I requested my VA records. Easy, right? They pop up on the computer? No. They exist only on paper. Scanning the records of veterans of Viet Nam, who are aging and need care, would cost money. Washington has much more interest in making new cripples in remote countries than in caring for the cripples it has already made. My country, ‘tis of thee….

The VA said consecutively that my records were in Pittsburgh, then Austin, then St. Louis, and then, God knows why, in Portland, Oregon. It took a year to get them, despite threats of litigation.

Utter confusion reigned. Over and over they sent us forms to fill out that we had already filled out, sent letters to the wrong address. This is what most face without help. The barrier is almost insurmountable, and saves the government a lot of money.

I live in Mexico, as do a lot of vets, a fair few of them disabled. (The VA seems not to understand that a world exists beyond America’s borders. Nowhere on the VA’s web site could I find answers to questions that expat vets need answered.) If a vet here makes a claim because his condition has worsened, he goes through the VA office in Houston. On average, it takes Houston 377 days just to get to him. Not to solve the problem, just for him to bubble to the top of the pile. Being technologically at the grass-hut level, the VA doesn’t know about email, and so sends and demands paper letters. These may or may not arrive in foreign lands. The VA insists on the vet’s filling out a form he didn’t receive and didn’t know was sent, so the whole convoluted process stops.

Try dealing with this if, as is the case with an acquaintance of mine, you are so riddled with shrapnel, because something big came through the bottom of your helicopter, that you are in constant pain – forty years later. You have to take so much pain medication just to get through the day that you can’t under bureaucratic letters. The consequence is….

The hell with it. The following is a letter to me from an attorney who represents vets pro bono before the VA:

“Fred: Of course, your suggestion (about screen-reading software) makes perfect sense and that’s why it will never happen. Secretary Shinseki means well and has done what he can to improve the claims backlog, but no one ever expected that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would lead to the number of service-connected injuries that currently exist. One of the biggest problems is orthopedic injuries caused by the 100-pound-plus combat loads these kids have to carry. I currently have four claims for Iraq and Afghanistan kids for shoulder, hip and knee injuries, usually caused when they fall going up or down hilly terrain with these loads. Then there are the injuries caused by IEDs. The truth is that the President has given more money to the VA in five years than Bush did in eight, but it’s not enough, thanks to Republicans in the House. The new budget proposes a 4% increase to $63 billion, but it does not include enough money to hire thousands of new people to work on claims. Most of the increase is to hire more medical staff, particularly mental health providers. It does no good to offer mental-health services when the vets who are suffering can’t get their claims done in less than a year. It is forcing many to live on the streets, sleep in their cars or they end up in shelters. We see this right here, in Central Oregon.”

It makes me feel so patriotic I could choke.