PALMYRA — Raymond Everlith Jr. served his country for 22 years and in two wars in the Middle East, but when it came time for him to get his teeth fixed, his nation demanded $250.
When he retired from the U.S. Army Reserves as a master sergeant last September, after serving in both the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom, Everlith believed the Veterans Administration would provide his health care for the rest of his life.
But when he went to the Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta on Wednesday to have repairs made on the false teeth that were wired in during his mobilization to Iraq four years ago, Everlith was shocked to learn that not only would the hospital not fix his teeth, but would provide no free health care of any kind.
“Everybody always tells you, if you ever have a problem, and you’re a veteran, just go to the VA,” Everlith said. “That’s all I’ve heard for 20 years. And the one time I need help, I go to the VA, and they say, ‘We can’t help you.’ “
Everlith, 40, would typically qualify for VA health benefits, said Rene Deschene, service officer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars of Maine. Soldiers who served 24 months of continuous active duty and meet certain financial criteria, and those who served in Iraq, are eligible for VA health care.
Soldiers returning from Iraq who have not served 24 months of continuous active duty, however, must sign up for health coverage within two years or returning to the United States to maintain the benefits.
“If they fail to sign up with the two years, they have to meet the 24 months continuous service and the means test,” Deschene said.
Everlith said he had never heard of the policy until Thursday.
“Nobody ever said a word to me about it,” Everlith said. “There was nothing set up for us. Nobody told me I needed to go anywhere or do anything. They put me on a plane, processed me and sent me home.”
Deschene said the situation is not common, but has been known to happen.
“If he wasn’t (told), whoever was in charge of that transportation unit wasn’t doing their job,” Deschene said.
Everlith’s experience is not unheard of, particularly among those who serve in the reserves, Deschene said. The National Guard, which has very local command, does a good job of informing troops of benefits and how to secure them, Deschene said. And those exiting the military from active duty are automatically processed for benefits upon their departure. But reservist soldiers can have commands in different states and be attached to nearly any unit. Everlith, for example, served with the 11th Bravo Infantry, but was activated to serve in Iraq with the 3rd Personnel Command out of Mississippi. Sometimes the information that is supposed to be given to soldiers gets lost in the shuffle, Deschene explained.
“The major command for reserves have got to step up and make sure their people get the briefing,” Deschene said.
Jim Doherty, staff assistant for the center director at Togus, said the VA is constantly doing outreach and meeting with returning soldiers to brief them on securing their benefits.
“I’m beating the bushes and trying to tell people, ‘You need to sign up,’ ” Doherty said.
Getting the information to reserve units is sometimes difficult, he said.
“We cannot get into a unit unless we’re invited in,” Doherty said. “Sometimes their next echelon is in another state. It’s harder to have that single point of contact.”
Doherty said he was unsure when the two-year sign-up policy began, but believes it was 2003. It is possible, Doherty agreed, that the policy had not yet been announced at the time Everlith left Iraq.
Regardless of why he never signed up for the benefits, Everlith’s inability to receive VA health benefits now is, at least in part, due to his good health. The only option Everlith now has to receive benefits is to connect his injury or malady to his time in the service. The only other way Everlith, who drives an oil truck for a living and does have health insurance through the company, could qualify for VA health benefits is if he falls into a certain income category, which currently is about $24,000 or less per year.
“He has to become service connected for something,” Deschene said. “That’s his only option.”
Even though Everlith’s teeth were repaired by the Army during his mobilization, because it was a preexisting condition he was forced to sign a paper promising to pay the bill in order to have VA personnel fix his teeth.
“Because I was able to do my job and come out unscathed after 22 years with no lingering effect, I’m on my own,” Everlith said.
His father, Raymond Everlith Sr. of Fairfield, who was permanently disabled by injuries he received during the Korean War, has relied on the VA to provide his health care for more than 50 years. He said he is incensed that his son is not allowed the same benefit.
“This is no way to treat a veteran,” Everlith Sr. said. “He’s not looking for sympathy. He just wants to get work done on his mouth.”
Everlith said he wonders how many other veterans are in his position — he would like to hear from those who are at email@example.com. He said he is not angry at his inability to receive benefits, but he is disappointed.
A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Collins would look into Everlith’s case.
Everlith believes Congress should make VA health benefits for soldiers automatic after 20 years of service.
“To say, ‘Thanks for your service; you’re on your own now,’ which is what they told me (Wednesday), I was just shocked,” he said. “It’s just not right. The United States pays for health care for illegal immigrants, but they won’t pay for me. That’s the least they could do for somebody who gives 20 years for their country.”
Craig Crosby — 861-9253 firstname.lastname@example.org