By Dr. Robert “Smitty” Smith
Faculty Member at American Military University
It is easy for our nation to go to war, as there seems to be few legal restraints that prevent our military from being deployed across the globe. Those of us who have served in the military understand that this reality is just part of the contract we signed up for—it is our duty. However, there is another part of this contract that hasn’t received the attention it deserves: That our nation will take care of us. Recent enrollment horror stories involving extremely long wait times, secret waiting lists, 30-year-old software programs, and unauthorized appointment scheduling at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) demonstrates that it’s easier to send us into harm’s way than it is to honor the commitment to care for us.
Trying to Understand the VA
Most of us understand, or think we understand, the VA at the institutional level. However, when you get down to the personal and micro level, the VA becomes perplexing, as comically portrayed by late-night host Jon Stewart. Ultimately, the VA has an adversarial relationship with military personnel, despite every President since Lincoln publicly asserting that they will take care of veterans.
Currently, by the VA’s own math, a veteran commits suicide every hour of every day. Then there is the crisis of poverty and homelessness among veterans; in New York City, it was estimated that in 2013 the VA kitchen served more than 95,000 veterans. Even if you cut that number in half, it is staggering. In terms of homeless veterans, the numbers range between 50,000 to 300,000.
It is clear that many veterans are in crisis—but why? I’ll offer two reasons: the VA process and the VA math.
The Broken VA System
Do you read tea leaves to make decisions? Of course not, but veterans might as well do so while waiting for VA healthcare decisions. The process, in polite terms, is broken.
Remember I mentioned how easy it is to go to war? Well such decisions have had real consequences in terms of overburdening an already dysfunctional system. If we start with the low estimate of 600,000 unprocessed claims, add in a conservative 1 million future claims 5 to 7 years out from this war, the numbers are far beyond what the VA can handle. Veterans will be waiting years for their claims to be processed. And that’s just processed, not a guarantee that they’ll be processed correctly or fairly.
In my case, I am retiring out of the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program. I have already filed my claim–but not because anyone advised me to do so. I have heard that if you file your claim while still on active status, it gets fast-tracked and only takes six months. Of course, the VA claims its standard is 125 days. For those who may not know, you should go to eBenefits and put a placeholder in the system (i.e. a file to start your claim) while you’re still on active duty. By doing so, allegedly you get bumped up in the queue.
The VA’s Math Doesn’t Add Up
The math at the VA is less than straightforward: 50 percent and 50 percent doesn’t equal 100 percent. They use an arcane calculation that can allow someone with eight major disabling conditions to be found less than 100 percent disabled.
This means those in the military are forced to game the system, because the VA is attempting pay as few benefits as possible. If you don’t go into the Combined Federal Register and look at your conditions and ensure that your doctor uses the exact words the VA uses, they will either lower your rate or simply deny it.
Between those two issues alone—VA math and a system that processes claims at the speed of printing the Gutenberg Bible—is it any wonder why so many of veterans are in crisis?
And, should you not think the VA is an abomination, consider this: Cpl. Elias Reyes Jr., who served two combat tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of an improvised explosive device blast during his service. The Marine veteran ended up committing suicide. At the time of his death he was receiving just $400.93a month in disability benefits. Shortly after his death, the VA sent the grieving familya letter demanding the money issued to the veteran during the month of his death. The letter said the VA was sorry to learn about Cpl. Reyes‘ death, while the second line asked for his last disability check back. As legislators scramble to pass legislation to fix the VA, our nation’s veterans remain in crisis. Is this the care Lincoln envisioned for us? Need I say more?
About the Author: LTC Robert G. Smith has served in the capacity of an armor officer, logistician, military intelligence and engineer officer. He is a graduate of the Armor Basic Course, the Armor Advanced Course, Command and General Staff College and Army Combined Arms Staff College and the Advanced Joint Professional Military Course in Joint Warfare.
After 9/11 he was recalled to active duty, serving as the lead Army military historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History for the attack on the Pentagon. He has subsequently served as the Vth Corps historian for the initial invasion of Iraq and in the Deputy Directorate of Special Operation (DDSO) on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While on the DDSO he wrote a highly classified study on SOF in the Global War on Terror. He was the CoS of the Army one man GWOT record collector, tasked to collect all the lost records. In three years he collected 7.5 TB of records. In addition, he served as the Deputy Command Historian at CENTCOM. He was appointed as a Kentucky Colonel by the Governor of Kentucky in 2010. He currently is in the Army Wounded Warrior Program.
Among his awards are the Bronze Star, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Medal and Combat Action Badge. He is currently a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in intelligence, national security and military science studies. He recently received the university’s 2014 Faculty Excellence in Teaching and Learning Award.