Op Ed by Bryce C.K. Muhlenberg
“The Department of Veterans Affairs is currently drowning in a backlog of claims submitted by veterans seeking care for their wounds of war. With each passing day the claims backlog only grows larger and the waiting time for veterans only gets longer,” said Colleen Corliss, speaking about the problems recently uncovered at the local Oakland regional offices. One of these problems is an average 320 day wait veterans face to find out whether they will receive any assistance after filing a claim.
Here are some quick stats:
- Still pending are 905,000 cases nationwide with 66.5% of these being active over 125 days.
- Half of veterans wait 50 days before a full evaluation is conducted by the VA
- There are only 21,590 mental health workers in VA nationwide.
“Over 45 percent of the more than 1.5 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have returned home and filed a disability claim,” said Aaron Glantz, a Bay Area reporter. “The most common claims granted have been for tinnitus, back pain and post-traumatic stress disorder.”
This makes sense. But, let’s roll some common sense around first, hit some numbers, then talk about if the VA is handling this situation the right way.
Tinnitus and back pain are relatively easily treatable and understandable injuries given the grunt lifestyle. Similarly, PTSD also makes sense as a top complaint filed, given the nature of combat and life in the service.
The difference I see between these top-three common claims is in the nature of the injury, PTSD, itself. Often the illness doesn’t manifest immediately, and when it does, is hard to self identify, and even harder to simply get to a place where taking initial steps toward treatment are even possible (read denial, debilitating depression, anxiety, sometimes to the point where basic daily function seems impossible.) So, it’s already an uphill battle for a veteran with PTSD. And, I’m not saying every vet with PTSD is thinking suicidal thoughts, has a hair trigger temper, a million triggers, isn’t showering for weeks on end due to depression and has holed himself up in his apartment with a bottle of Jameson, but, I personally know my fair share of vets and have my fair share of friends who have been right there. So, if the veteran is able to pull himself up by the bootstraps long enough to get out of the house and to the VA, what we have right now is a system that takes 320 days after to even respond to him.
And, I suspect, overtime, we’ll see a much greater amount veterans with PTSD being identified, especially given that 55% of us still have yet to file any claim at all. If only 45% of vets are seeking treatment and the VA is already floundering, failing, what shall we expect 10, 15 years down the road?
Hmmm. I would hope, at the very least, some transparency, honesty, and respect. This should be the very first step.
“Shhh!” were the first words out of Dr. Ira Katz, VA deputy chief, in a Feb. 13, 2008, email. “Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?”
In a separate email Katz explained to colleagues that on average 18 vets kill themselves daily.
MSNBC also reports that an email by Norma Perez, a VA psychologist in Texas, suggested peers and counselors try to find ways to diagnose fewer PTSD cases. Lawyers involved in a case surrounding these emails argued VA displayed hesitancy to properly attend to legitimate mental health problems.
So, guys and gals, I guess that’s that: The VA hasn’t been honest.
Even worse, they’ve been fudging the numbers to save face. So, where do we go from here if the surface of this hulking VA machine is hiding black lies behind its surface?
Well, let us start to restore some hope.
Considering how mired in dysfunction VA care has become, how emotionally charged and nationally endemic the problem is, one must understand that a politicians decision to touch the issue is a political noose or gold medal – depending on how things turn out down the road. Despite that, we veterans in the Bay Area have had some friends in the fighting hole in U.S. Reps. Jackie Speier, (D) San Mateo, who personally was shot five times and knows PTSD from the inside, and Barbara Lee, (D) Oakland. Both recently attended the congressionally sponsored Town Hall meeting May 21st at the SF War Memorial Theater to address the issue of Oakland VA’s backlog. Of course, this attendance can be seen as a political move, but, my hope, is they were simply – moved.
Here’s why I think they were:
“Throughout the more than four-hour meeting, veterans hissed and shouted at Willie Clark, the VA’s western regional director, and Douglas Bragg, director of the Oakland office, calling them ‘liars’ and demanding swift action on individual claims that often dated back years. In the center of the room, 93-year-old World War II veteran Jake Ventrella sat in his wheelchair, his claim pending for more than two years. His friend and caregiver, June Carter, said Ventrella’s disability claim was being delayed while the VA sought additional exams to see if his health had improved. ‘He’s 93 years old,’ Carter said. ‘His condition is not going to improve. Jake wanted you to know when the United States called, he went – to the Rhinieland, to Battle of the Bulge, To Luxembourg and Normandy,’ Carter added. ‘Now he’s asking for help, and you’re running us around in circles. You should be ashamed of yourself,’ she said as cheers ran out throughout the room.” -Aaron Glantz, Bay Citizen, “Angry veterans demand end to disability claims backlog.”
Speier wrote in a piece entitled PTSD: Roadblocks to Recovery that:
“In March of this year, (she) met with Douglas Bragg, the director of the Oakland VA, to hear what he would do to erase the backlog of 34,100 claims at his office – 80 percent of which have been languishing for more than 125 days, the VA’s self-imposed deadline to clear a claim – including 3,774 PTSD cases. The director promised to close all cases that were a year old within the next 12 months. (She) will hold him to that promise.”
Let’s applaud her for her statement, hope she remains tough as nails and really grinds her thumb down heavy on the Oakland VA RO’s performance. Pelosi, we would love to see you get tough on Bay Area VA. Get down in the weeds and sort these guys out.
Until then, I want to jump on the dog pile and finish this ramble of a post.
Here’s my press release, and mine alone, as a Marine Veteran. This is from Sgt. Bryce C.K. Muhlenberg to the VA:
Ok, VA, as a veteran, I want to give you my pledge. I pledge to spread the truth about the strength of veterans. Trust in the fact that we have seen the depths of ugliness — and guess what, we are still here. We are strong enough to “standby to standby” and “hurry up and wait” — some more for VA — while we wait on our claims, treatment and respect.
But, I have to stand by Mr. Ventrella and Ms. Carter and call you out too. In no other area of government would this wait time be acceptable. Imagine citizens waiting 313 days for an unemployment check. Imagine waiting 313 days for a social security check.
We all KNOW the system needs some oil, new parts and maybe even a complete overhaul. We KNOW you are up to your necks in a backlog. I ask, as a man you have apparently pledged to support: show a little military integrity, while you yourself, as an organization, suffer your own debilitating wounds of inefficiency and management problems.
Simply show us the same respect. Stop manipulating the numbers, making excuses and trying to paint a pretty picture. We ARE the picture, and your problems ARE our problems. You aren’t fooling us, and guess what, you aren’t fooling congress anymore either.
To employers and veterans outreach organizations:
I second what Swords’ Executive Director, Michael Blecker, had to say in his post “A good job is a good start” in The New York Times online: “There are many community-based organizations that receive federal funding to provide veterans with job training, but a lack of collaboration between public, private and nonprofit entities squanders efforts to successfully reach, train and place veterans in jobs. What good is an investment in job training programs without commitments from employers to hire the graduates?”
Here is my message to all you vets out there:
Hey, vets, guess what’s awesome? We aren’t chained by the UCMJ, our CO’s or our NCOIC. There is no such thing as an Article 32 for us. There is no NJP or Court Martial. If you have a problem, start getting loud!
I encourage all of you to start speaking out. That means letters, Facebook, Twitter, Vlogs, Youtube, Art, Music, Photos, anything to get the word out.
Easy way to get involved: If you like this post or hate this post, then comment and follow me on Twitter