"No matter how paranoid or conspiracy-minded you are, what the government is actually doing is worse than you imagine." - - - William Blum

June 15, 2007

Seven of Six Adds to Teachervet's Story

I ran across teachervet's story the other day at dkos. I feel I can add another Veteran's perspective to parts of a great story. Especially in dealing with the Veteran's Administration, filing claims and such. I'm one more voice that might help guide suffering Vets in dealing with the VA. I figure by the time all of us disabled Veteran's drop helpful hints, the men and women coming home will face the shortest route to VA assistance as possible.

I've never tried to put myself forward as the poster child for pain & suffering. God knows there are so many more vets whose experience of war and its aftermath are quantum leaps greater than mine. If anything, my hope is that offering up my relatively mild experiences will bring into focus the much more significant struggles of my brothers and sisters.

My sentiments exactly teachervet. However, I've been told that every time I write, if it affects only one person, then no matter what, it's beneficial.

I put off filing a VA claim for well over a year. First of all, I had to be convinced that I actually deserved to feel bad. Once I overcame those feelings (somewhat), I then had to face this thing called the VA. Almost everyone with whom I spoke (including quite a few VA employees) about filing a claim warned me that it was going to be tough. First of all, it would take months to hear from them, and I'd probably have to send in multiple forms. Second, I should plan on having my claim denied; it's assumed that almost everyone has to appeal all or part of their claim one or more times. Third, expect little compassion, sympathy, or even civility from the system. Especially after returning from a place where everyone seems like the enemy, including the leadership who are supposed to be on your side, feeling like you're going back into a combat zone is not conducive to getting better.

Please, everyone, do not ever, delay filing a claim. The VA expects and wants you to do this. It saves the Government work and money. In fact, when I was recruited for the Army, I was never told about the VA. Upon my discharge, it's not like the Army has a VA advocate telling you where to go for the closest VA hospital. The military expects you to figure and find out about it on your own. Yet, I was discharged honorably under medical conditions and had a 0% service connection.

Next, do not feel guilty for your suffering, whether it's pain from an injury, mental problems, or a simple knee injury. That is what the VA is there for. The caveat, you do have to prove your claim, be prepared to produce your military medical records. And to follow the proper steps, the VA steps. The VA was formed to take care of the Veteran. It is the only reason why they exist.

Additionally, the most important advice anyone can give to troops currently serving is to make sure they always, always, get a copy of their medical records before they leave each duty station. Believe me, they will try to blow you off, stall, delay, and make it uncomfortable for you to get what is rightfully yours. Be persistent.

Yes, the road through the VA is difficult; be prepared for a long battle. It shouldn't have to be this way, but it's a fact of life. The onus is on you to produce the facts that will make a claim solid or weak. It is likely that a claim will be denied at first, but it does depend on how you prepare. Don't forget to use the representatives at the DAV, the VFW, and the American Legion. Some are better than others depending on the town, so do your homework. Which is as simple as asking other disabled Vets.

Let me digress for a moment by saying that up to this point my limited contact with the VA system has been mostly positive. Of course there was the nurse and secretary who would not let me see someone in the Mental Health office when I had a meltdown in a mall shortly after I got back (my records were not yet in the computer system). And I've had to wait 3-5 months for appointments with specialists. But my psychologist has been superb, and the VA doctors I've seen have been very good as well (once can I get to them, and despite their being over-stretched). I have friends and acquaintances who have shared VA horror stories, which I have no reason to doubt, but I've been pretty lucky. So I suppose part of my anxiety was feeling that I was pushing my luck by filing a claim, sort of like jumping into shark-infested waters. Back to the story, though.

You will always have your good and bad experiences with the VA. I've heard Veteran's tell me that they were fast tracked and couldn't be happier with the VA. Then the stories of the Veteran who has to keep producing his paperwork because the VA has lost his records. Let me just say this is all to be expected.

If you're not in the VA computer system yet then the best advice is to hand-carry your own medical records to all hospitals, clinics and appointments. Always make copies of your medical records, plenty of copies, and more copies. I've had to produce my records at least 6-7 different times in the past to the many clinics and hospitals I've been to. Three times at one hospital alone because they told me my records are not there. Go to a main VA hospital for medical record information entry. Even if you live in a rural area, it's worth the drive for this one time event. Pull your number and wait your 2-3 hours, early morning is best.

Last week I got one of the predictable forms asking for more information. Along with every scrap of paper that I could send documenting my claim, I had to write out a narrative about the experiences that I felt led to my PTSD diagnosis. I suppose this is reasonable, although I was hoping that VA would accept the report and diagnosis of its own doctors. I put off writing the form until today because I knew it would be unpleasant. It was.

It's easy for me to say this now. Please, write down everything with the VA. What doctors you saw, facilities you went to, times, dates, anything anyone ever tells you. Of major importance, please, send all correspondence certified mail or return receipt requested. Make a journal if you have to, and make a copy of it. This will make you more prepared to fill out each claim requested. It will also keep your paperwork consistent. They can imply that you were misleading them if you omitted or forgot a specific detail. It's not that anyone will intentionally lie, but most folks memories are not that good, especially over a 15 year period. I know mine isn't. It could be my paranoia but sometimes I wonder if they ask me things just to see if my story will change. Dates for different surgeries and hospital stays can get confusing.

I'll let teachervet finish his fine story.

I won't go into the details here--maybe another time--but I will say that I pay a price for every time I recount certain disturbing experiences. [Maybe that's a good thing; if the pain went away maybe I, too, would begin to take war too lightly.] As I began writing, I had what has become a typical experience. I felt everything around me fade (this isn't just narrative drama, it's true), and I was back in Iraq. I could feel the heat, smell the dust and my own sweat, hear and taste the place. I could hear and see and feel the explosions. And the anger came back all over again. Anger at the killing, anger at the stupidity, anger at the people who perpetuate this barbarism.

It didn't help that I made myself take a break to try to calm down. There's no small amount of dissonance re-experiencing Iraq while sitting at home, at your desk, drinking tea, and hearing your family going about their day. I wanted to be home, not there. I had bought a Sunday paper earlier in the morning [mostly to line our birds' cages with, since I loathe the corporate media], so I thought I'd look at the comics for a little diversion. As I thumbed through the paper I saw a photo of a soldier holding his infant son. The soldier was getting ready to deploy for another year-long tour in Iraq with the National Guard--and he was one of my former squad members. He had been in my platoon in Iraq. I spent many hours talking with him (and we'd served together for five years prior to that); he is a kind, intelligent, gentle young man who joined the Guard so he could go to college. He came back, married his girlfriend, started his family, and now is going back. I found myself alternating between rage and tears, and I again found myself back in Iraq.

I finished up my letter and tried to move on to other things (like grading students' papers). But I've found that once I get pulled back again into the war, it takes me several days to get back. That means several nights of lousy sleep, several days of avoiding situations that can lead to an emotional response (negative or positive), several days of "grounding" and "breathing" exercises, and several days of trying to assure my loved ones (and maybe myself) that I'm okay.

Although I have no illusions about the VA accepting my claim, I sure hope they don't ask me to write this again. I guess I'll just make a copy just in case.

I'll close by asking anyone who stumbles across this (and takes the time to read it) to keep my friend and his family in their thoughts and/or prayers. Indeed, keep everyone affected by this war in your hearts; it's a far better place for them than their reality.

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