Update: House Speaker Hastert Joins Probe into Chicago VA Scandal

Chicago Sun-Times

Hastert jumps into vets scandal

Illinois’ congressmen have given outgoing Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi a deadline of Jan. 5 to answer why Illinois veterans receive among the lowest disability pay in the nation.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who also signed the Illinois delegation letter to Principi, is calling for a VA study that would pinpoint why disability pay varies drastically from state to state and recommend a more equitable system.

“Veterans in Illinois are on the short end of the stick on this,” said Hastert. “We want a uniform way of doing this. It’s only fair.”

Also on Thursday, Democratic Senator-elect Barack Obama called for the newly appointed VA secretary, Jim Nicholson, to come to Illinois and meet with veterans who have struggled to get disability benefits. Principi had agreed to come to Chicago before his resignation was announced, but Obama said it was more important now that Nicholson address Illinois’ veterans.

“We want the person who is going to be in charge over the next several years coming in with a clear attitude that this is a problem that needs to be solved,” Obama said. “My assumption is that as a veteran himself [Nicholson] is going to be as concerned as we are about some of the disparities that the Sun-Times has reported on.”

A Chicago Sun-Times article last Friday showed that Illinois’ disabled veterans receive thousands less than other states’. The article highlighted several veterans from the Chicago area who have spent years fighting for disability benefits, including Louis Vargas, 57, of Crest Hill near Joliet.

Disability pay granted

On Wednesday, Vargas, a Vietnam veteran who has been fighting the VA for disability since 2000, learned that the VA has decided to award him 100 percent disability for post-traumatic stress disorder and upgrade his other injuries.

“It’s unbelievable,” Vargas said only minutes after learning of the VA’s decision. Overcome with tears, he said: “This has been such a battle. It’s gone on for so long and it’s been so draining.”

Vargas has suffered for decades with nightmares — reliving the horrors of Vietnam where he was stationed from 1967 to 1968, first as a cannoneer with an artillery group and then as a truck driver in the motor pool.

During his Vietnam tour, Vargas was ambushed in the jungle, watched a comrade die and handled dead soldiers. The experience haunted him.

When upset, Vargas often takes out a small toy, a beagle named Fred, that his mother sent him while he was in Vietnam.

In 2000, a VA doctor diagnosed Vargas with post-traumatic stress disorder and told him not to return to his job as a mechanic at a nuclear power plant. But Chicago raters told him he couldn’t prove he ever saw combat and continued to deny his claim.

Long wait is over

“I feel like I’ve been on a pendulum just swinging back and forth. It seemed like it was never going to end,” Vargas said. “It’s just so overwhelming, this feeling that it is over.”

Vargas believes last week’s article about his case propelled the Board of Veterans Appeals in Washington and Chicago raters to act this week. Both approved claims that will give Vargas an additional $2,300 a month. His veterans representative, Randy Bunting of the Disabled American Veterans, also calls the timing of the decisions “highly unusual.”

Vargas currently receives $306 a month in disability pay for diabetes related to Agent Orange and a knee injury. But with the new decision, the VA will have to pay Vargas retroactively.

“If it weren’t for your article this would have never happened,” he said. “They realize now that the watchdogs are out and are looking at them.”

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