November 10, 2007 – Robert Lee Aiken III is a smart man. He knows which benefits are due him as an Iraq war veteran. He knows how to fight bureaucracy. He’s working on a new career so he can adequately support his family.
But it’s been hard. Damn hard.
And he worries about the soldiers who might not be as capable.
Mr. Aiken was about to start his senior year at the University of Texas at Austin in 2000 when he dropped out to serve in the Marines – just like his dad had served in Vietnam.
Four years later, he earned a Purple Heart when he was shot in the foot and buttocks during a firefight with insurgents in the Ramadi province of central Iraq.
Recovery hasn’t been easy. Nor has his new life as a war veteran.
Doctors saved his foot, but he still has pain and can’t sit for long. He went through a long ordeal to get his disability rating and disability pay. Adding insult to injury, he said, his Chevy Blazer was impounded and sold at Camp Pendleton while he was in the hospital – and the tow company is still trying to collect $800 for seizing and auctioning off a car he bought for $600.
For Mr. Aiken, that fiasco is part and parcel of the frustrating maze that comes with reintegration into civilian life.
“You don’t expect it to happen,” he said of the small stuff. “It’ll compound in your life. When you’ve got family, you’re just trying to keep your head above water.”
The handoff from the military to Veterans Affairs has been part of the problem. Military and veterans caseworkers assign separate disability ratings, which causes confusion. And injured soldiers are often in no shape to sort it out.
“The world doesn’t slow down for you,” Mr. Aiken said. “It really is unfortunate. You’re injured, and it’s beyond your control.”
A veteran with a 100 percent VA disability rating (and a wife and one child) gets a monthly check for $2,711. That number goes down as the disability rating goes down. For example, a veteran with a 30 percent rating (with no dependents) gets only $348 a month.
When Mr. Aiken left the military in November 2005, he had a presumptive disability rating of 90 percent, but he had to wait several months for his first check because his mailing address wasn’t in the system.
When a caseworker in the VA sent a letter saying he was only 20 percent disabled, Mr. Aiken had to travel to Washington – at his own expense – to appeal. After a panel of experts quizzed him about his injuries, he was awarded a better rating, which means more benefits and training opportunities.
“Everything has worked out well for me, but a lot of it is due to my own tenacity and determination,” he said. “A lot of guys don’t pursue it or look into it because they don’t have the capacity to.”
Mr. Aiken said he learned to work the system, which he calls “the beast,” mostly from friends who had already gone through it. Now he feels a duty to help returning Marines who are in the same spot.
At 32, he is still somewhat in limbo. He moved to Dallas in February to be closer to his mom, and he’s trying to provide for his wife, Gigi, and 2-year-old daughter, Samantha, through disability benefits and a sales job at an REI store.
He’s been working with a VA counselor since March to get admitted into a training center to become a certified helicopter flight instructor. But that process is taking more time than he expected.
“It’s a matter of conforming to their regulations,” Mr. Aiken said. “No one really sits down and tells you how it works. You’ve got to throw a lot of things at them, and have all your stuff together.”