After lengthy waits, North Carolina veterans receive due compensation from VA
After 34 years of trying, waiting, giving up and trying again, Ray Thomas of Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., now receives disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Thomas, 57, credits the expertise of Brunswick County, N.C., veterans service officer Harry Yoder and changes in the VA’s claims process for his ultimate success.
A Knight Ridder investigation – which included interviews with veterans and their families and reviews of VA documents and databases – found that Thomas was not alone in his wait.
Thomas served 13 months in Vietnam as a Marine. He was a rifleman, conducting patrols of an air base and mine fields. Thomas began filing for compensation in the early 1970s for illnesses caused by exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange and for hearing loss. He sought help from veterans service officers in four N.C. counties.
“I never did get any compensation, even though they had me connected to Agent Orange. I kept sending them more information over the years,” Thomas said of the VA claims workers and their requests for additional documentation.
“Ten years ago, it would take up to three years to get a reply,” Thomas said. “I just got so fed up and washed out with it because I wouldn’t get a response for years down the road.”
He gave up.
Then he started hearing from other veterans that things were changing, that they were getting more help from the VA. So, about six months ago, he visited the Brunswick County Veterans Services office in Bolivia, N.C., and met Yoder.
“Harry is really involved. He really cares. He wants you to get what’s owed to you,” Thomas said.
Yoder recommended that Thomas visit a medical specialist and helped Thomas write letters to the VA. Within three weeks, Thomas received notification from the VA that the file was being worked on. After about three months, Thomas was approved for disability compensation.
“It’s amazing. I think now they’re working more with the veterans than they ever have been,” Thomas said of the VA.
He also thinks Yoder knew exactly what to say in the supporting documents.
Yoder agrees that a well-written, thorough claim is key.
“We know what the requisites are for a sound claim. We know what elements have to be involved in that claim for it to have a high success rate,” Yoder said. “We know from experience how to put together claims that match the requirements of the VA. … You’ve got to know what it will take to push their buttons.”
Yoder, a Vietnam War veteran, works with veterans service officer Anita Hartsell. He mostly handles service-connected claims, and she primarily helps veterans’ widows. Yoder said it’s not unusual for them to have four to seven new claims a week.
Horry County Veterans Affairs officer Roger “Gregg” Hucks said his office files 10 to 15 new claims a week. He said the claims process is equitable.
“While the system is not perfect, it is fair,” Hucks said. “The holdup in adjudicating claims is the lack of manpower to do it. … Normally we’re told that there’s a six-month backlog in the regional office in Columbia.”
He said veterans who have fatal illnesses are bumped to the front of the line. “If it’s a terminal claim, they will fast-track the claim,” he said. “The VA will put him ahead of every claim up there. You have to give them credit for that.”
Veterans who are 70 or older and who have been in the pipeline for a year or longer also receive expedited service under an initiative called Tiger Team, which began in 2001.
Kenneth Bellamy, 75, of Southport, N.C., an Army veteran of the Korean War, said he benefited from Tiger Team – after a 49-year wait.
Bellamy served from 1950 to 1953. As a rifleman, he was on the front line in Korea and wounded in combat. He was shot through the thigh and had shrapnel lodged in his head when his steel helmet was pierced by gunfire. He also was hospitalized for frostbite, which he blames for his poor circulation and other problems with his hands and feet.
But when Bellamy was discharged, he was given a clean bill of health.
When he filed in 1953 for disability compensation, which is determined by a percentage rating system, he said: “People gave me the runaround. … They finally started giving me 10 percent, a year or two later. I kept complaining and kept going back and going back. … It finally went up to 40 percent.”
The higher the VA rates the disability, the greater the monthly payment.
About three years ago, Bellamy met Yoder.
“Before that, I couldn’t talk to anybody who was really concerned. For fortysomething years, I was really depressed at times, having flashbacks. They gave me a new rating but refused to pay me for my frostbite and my scars because they say there’s no records.”
Yoder was instrumental in helping file new claims that included post-traumatic stress disorder, Bellamy said. Now Bellamy’s disability rating is 100 percent.
“Before [Yoder], there were many others who didn’t really get anything accomplished,” Bellamy said. “It really made me feel pretty bitter.”
Yoder said experience and the amount of training veterans service officers receive affect claims’ outcomes.
“There’s a big difference in the ability, background and professionalism of an individual who might be in these positions,” he said.
Betty Georges, Georgetown County veterans service officer, said it is important to understand the technical nuances involved in writing a claim, which is where the service officer’s knowledge comes into play. She said a service officer has to be able to interpret the claim requests and present information in a persuasive manner.
“A good service officer has earned respect from our regional offices, so when we do submit something and there is a little gray there, we can work those areas out,” Georges said.
Georges said the claims system can be difficult for the veteran to negotiate.
“If the regional office receives the claim and it is not perfect, they’re going to send a letter back to the veteran, and it could be five or six pages and appear to be very confusing … and then the claim is set aside, waiting for the veterans to respond back to them,” she said.
Sometimes the documentation the regional office wants can be difficult for the veteran to obtain, she said.
“It’s a hard system. It’s imperfect. But it’s what we have. Knowing the system, being willing to fight for what you as a service officer believe for that veteran – there’s a lot of good there, too,” Georges said.
Frank Richardson, 62, of Calabash, N.C., understands what it’s like to want to give up on the claims system.
Richardson served 14 months in Vietnam as commander of a public-information detachment. His job was to escort journalists to the front line and protect them.
He filed a post-traumatic stress disorder claim in 1995. The claim was adjudicated in three to four months at a disability rate of 10 percent. Later, the rate was increased to 30 percent, then 50 percent in 1998 or 1999.
He also filed a claim in 2004 for tinnitus, defined by the American Tinnitus Association as the perception of noise in the ears or head when no external sound is present.
With each claim and disability-rating adjustment usually comes more testing by doctors and more paperwork.
“Most veterans, I would suspect, don’t want to keep going on because it’s very trying,” he said.
“You go through extremely emotional situations just to validate a claim. … You don’t want to keep going back to these people. You don’t want to keep breaking down in front of these people,” Richardson said. “You don’t want to go back into these rooms in your mind. You’ve got to unlock doors you don’t want to unlock.”
He said the VA is doing the best it can with an overloaded system, but the system inherently is flawed because of the human factor.
In 1995, the ratings officer handling his claim was 24 years old and had no military experience, Richardson said. “They doubted I was ever in combat,” he said. “It’s a subjective thing. You’ve got people deciding about you based on their own feelings.”
Yoder said the best analogy is a court of law, in which each case brought to trial has a different judge, jury and set of lawyers.
“There’s also disparity in the quality and consistency in the claims that come from different regional offices in the system and different rating boards,” Yoder said. “If John Q. Veteran comes in and does a claim in Winston-Salem … and John Q. Veteran goes to Tampa, Fla., he might get different results.”
Despite the system’s faults, area service officers and veterans agree the system does the best that it can.
Veteran Michael Rivenbark, 56, who lives outside Leland, N.C., is satisfied with the VA and the adjudication of his disability claims.
Rivenbark, who served in the Air Force from 1967 to 1971 and then in the Reserve from 1979 to 1991, was diagnosed as an insulin-dependent diabetic in 1985. He had a heart attack in 1993 and recently was diagnosed with cataracts, glaucoma and post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he sees between eight and 10 doctors every quarter for a variety of follow-ups.
Rivenbark didn’t realize he was eligible for compensation until he went to the VA office in New Hanover County, N.C., to see about getting an identification card. The service officer asked Rivenbark whether he had served in Vietnam and whether he’d had any health problems.
“It was sheer luck that I knocked on [the service officer’s] door,” Rivenbark said. He received retroactive disability compensation, medical care and prescription help. “I’ve been very pleased.”
The veterans service officers said they’re deeply satisfied with their work helping veterans.
“You get a rush knowing that you’ve helped them improve their quality of life. It’s like seeing a flag flying on a bright, sunny day,” Yoder said. “By gosh, if you’re going to send them to war, take care of them when they get back.”
BY THE NUMBERS County veterans service officers in the Carolinas
North Carolina | 96 (out of 100 counties)
South Carolina | 46 (one in each county)
Projected veterans in September
Brunswick County | 11,501
Horry County | 25,465
Georgetown County | 5,973
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, projected, as adjusted from the 2000 Census
Contact SARAH P. KENNEDY at firstname.lastname@example.org 444-0718.