The Department of Veterans Abuse

Today, the 11th of November 2017, is Veterans Day – America’s annual tribute to the brave men and women who have served in America’s armed services. The observance originates with the close of the First World War, which ended after a cease-fire, or armistice, between Germany and the Allied Nations that eventually paved the way for the formal peace negotiations at Versailles. The initial cease-fire that started it all was affected on the 11th of November, 1918. One year later President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11th 1919 would mark the first official commemoration of Armistice Day. So at 11 am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the nation halted all business activities and transactions for two minutes in a symbolic gesture to acknowledge the fallen and to honor veterans. Seven years later, in 1926, Congress passed a resolution to observe the recurring anniversary with thanksgiving and prayer, as well as exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations. Congress eventually amended Armistice Day in 1938, rebranding it as Veterans Day. Three decades later Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill to provide three-day weekends for federal employees on the fourth Monday of October. Observing a November holiday in October resulted in wide spread confusion, so President Ford changed it back to November 11th in 1978.

It’s been nearly a century since the Armistice that generated the Veterans Day holiday took place. Today, November 11th is decorated with American flags, honor guards, parades and a wreath is ceremonially laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But on November 12th, the country forgets all about our veterans until Memorial Day, America’s other patriotism-fueled three-day weekend in the month of May. For thousands of veterans struggling to be acknowledged by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Veteran’s Day has become nothing more than another day off; an empty symbolic gesture masquerading as something more. And the story of Lance Hartley illustrates how America’s corporate indifference toward veterans is exemplified writ large by the VA.

LANCE HARTLEY is a 69 year-old Vietnam veteran. Since 1986, he’s managed a one-man upholstery shop from his garage here in Missoula. Though he should be retired by now, Lance anticipates he will probably work until the day he dies. While he qualifies for Social Security, his monthly check doesn’t touch his living expenses, so he’s able to make ends meet with his upholstery business – at least he was able to until he took a fall in the autumn of 2014, breaking several bones including ribs and his neck. Since upholstery requires a steady hand and strong frame, Lance has been turning away jobs ever since, and the bills are piling up. 8 months behind on his mortgage, Lance is now facing the possibility of homelessness, alongside 60,000 other American veterans, unless he can get healthy enough to begin working again. Unfortunately, Lance doesn’t have affordable access to health care. His status as a Vietnam-era combat veteran should earn him health care benefits through the VA, but it doesn’t.

Though his broken neck was the last straw, Lance’s health problems are numerous: he suffers from hypertension and type II diabetes; his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) produces chronic anxiety, sleep deprivation, nightmares and severe depression; and since he broke his neck last year, Lance has survived five heart attacks. On top of it all, he’s dealing with a skin condition common among Vietnam-era veterans. Lance pulled up the sleeves of his shirt to reveal his forearms, which were covered in purple splotches. I would have initially mistaken the blemishes as birthmarks if Lance hadn’t told me what they actually were. “That’s agent orange,” he said. “That’s what’s killing me right now. I had a little spot like this and it was bleeding so I put a band aid on it. Well, when you take the band aid off, the skin comes off.”

Lance’s exposure to Agent Orange has resulted in painful open sores

The multiplying sores on his skin aren’t the only legacy of his exposure to Agent Orange; it’s also weakening his immune system. Lance has watched Agent Orange contamination consume his friends over the years. The appearance of lumps that resemble grapes, both in color and size, typifies the beginning of the end for those affected. Of the 14 veterans in Lance’s PTSD therapy group, seven have died as a result from their exposure to Agent Orange, and a number of Lance’s personal friends have undergone surgery to remove tumors that appeared as a result of their exposure to the chemical.

Vietnam, 1968. Because 55-gallon barrels are used to transport such a wide variety of supplies, those containing weaponized herbicides were painted orange to indicate danger and set them apart, hence Agent Orange.

Lance was mobilized with the 3rd Battalion of the 26th Marine Regiment as a rifleman in April of 1968, just three months after the Tet Offensive surprise attack and one month prior to the highest casualty rate in the entire conflict.

Lance experienced the worst of the worst during his deployment. He told me about villages his teams had been ordered to destroy “with extreme prejudice” in Laos and North Vietnam. He recounted the terror he experienced when his helicopter was shot down, landing over a sector of enemy territory that he could only describe as “Dante’s Inferno.” He recalled narrowly escaping with his life after US fighter jets, mistaking his platoon for enemy troops, bombed his position and killed most of his men. He detailed a CIA briefing that involved covert plans to deploy nuclear weapons into Vietnam that were to be blamed on the Chinese government. Fighting through the tears, Lance articulated one unspeakable horror after another.

“I always called myself the poster child for PTSD,” he said. “I had PTSD before they had a name for it. Even last night, I was up until four or five in the morning. I haven’t slept [more than] two hour naps since Vietnam.”

Lance endured seven brutal months of combat before finally sustaining an injury that he couldn’t walk off. In September of 1968, a Rocket Propelled Grenade attack severely injured his knee. Though he babied it, his commanders recognized that it required surgery.

So in October of 1968, he began a long and stressful journey home. The America he returned home to was very different than the one he’d left as intense protests were overwhelming entire cities. After arriving at Marine Corps headquarters at Quantico, Virginia, Lance underwent two knee surgeries. When he was well enough to get out of the hospital, the military concluded that he was of “no further use to the Marine Corps” and offered him an early out with an honorable discharge if he would agree to remove the physical limitations the doctors had placed on him. Interestingly, one of the activities the doctors had specifically restricted him from was riot control, which many Marines were being assigned to amid the growing protests.

Because his surgeries were still healing up, Lance’s doctors were reluctant to sign off on his release from medical restrictions and return to full duty, but eventually capitulated because of the promise of an early discharge. But as soon as his medical status was altered, instead of discharging him, the military assigned him to riot control in Washington D.C.

Lance recalls what happened when he was assigned to full duty. “They told me I had four and a half months of ‘bad time’ to make up, so I’ve got to be a squad leader and they were going to send me up to Washington D.C. for riot control. And at that time in ’69, all the returning vets were taking their medals and throwing them on the White House lawn. And so when they tell me I’ve got to go up there and do riot control I said, ‘Are you out of your fucking mind?’”

While the military took an active policy of using combat trained soldiers to suppress domestic protesters, Lance was appalled by the orders. After seeing the horrors of Vietnam with his own eyes, being asked to suppress Americans on US soil was too much for him to handle. Memories of what he’d seen in Vietnam plagued him with nightmares, his PTSD was making him increasingly paranoid, and he was haunted by guilt for having been sent home early. Lance was terrified of what might happen if he was ordered to endure the stress of riot control, and the thought of firing on American citizens was too much for him.

“And that’s where I went AWOL from,” Lance says. “Remember it like it was yesterday. I said, ‘I’m going home.’ And that Captain said, ‘You can’t go home -you can’t get off this base!’ I walked off the base and went up the road a couple hundred miles and became a lifeguard again at Ocean City, New Jersey.”

After more than three years of active duty service, and with only a few months to go in his contract with the Marines, Lance left the military life behind and forgot all about the Marines. But a year later, Lance discovered that the Marines had not forgotten about him.

“So a year goes by and the next summer I came home to find two FBI agents sitting on my porch,” Lance remembers. “They took me right back to Quantico, shaved my head, and put me in a barracks with bars over the windows. The next day they called me up and said that if I wanted out of the Marine Corps, they had some papers for me to sign.”

Lance was forced to sign release papers for his official discharge from the US military. As the reason for his separation, the document lists reason number 246: “Discharge by reason of request for discharge.” Unfortunately for Lance, this is known as a “bad paper” discharge, as it is listed as under “other than honorable conditions.” Although he was told that his status would change from “undesirable” to “honorable” after 6 months, no such upgrade ever took place.

The rest of Lance’s military record paints a picture of exceptionally meritorious service: 2 Purple Heart Medals; National Defense Medal; Vietnam Service Medal; two Presidential Unit Citations; and the Combat Action Ribbon. Even though he served in combat, even though he was wounded, and even though he continues to endure the mental burden of PTSD as well as the physical deterioration that results from Agent Orange contamination, Lance had received a “bad paper” discharge which meant that he did not qualify for benefits – benefits which he was increasingly in need of due to the mental trauma associated with what he had seen and done.

Five years later a decision by President Ford gave many Americans the impression that the atmosphere in Washington was changing. Six weeks after taking office, President Ford announced his program for the “Return of Vietnam Era Draft Evaders and Military Deserters.” Ford established a Presidential Clemency Board to grant clemency on a case-by-case basis. They reviewed applications from former servicemen like Lance who received undesirable discharges for going AWOL between August of 1964 and March of 1973, bracketing the period between when the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was enacted until the last American combatant left Vietnam. During that time, approximately 13,000 civilians evaded the draft, and more than 100,000 service members committed what the government termed “absence offences.”[1] On top of that, at least 560,000 Vietnam veterans were given discharges under conditions that were less than honorable.” [2]

With the help of a lawyer, Lance applied for and was granted a presidential pardon in November of 1975, signed by President Gerald Ford. Two years later in September of 1977, the military changed his discharge to reflect this correction, upgrading it to a “General Discharge under Honorable Conditions.” But the VA concluded that Lance was still ineligible for benefits, pension, or disability.

“I turned all the paperwork in,” Lance recalls. “And the VA tells me, ‘Well that’s no good.’ I asked why and they said, ‘Ford isn’t president anymore.’”

Lance’s attorney, Jim Taylor is not deterred. “That’s a pretty unique interpretation of the law and I don’t think it has any basis,” he says. “However, the VA can still legally deny Lance his benefits because after President Ford issued these pardons and instituted the clemency program, Congress almost immediately passed a law nullifying benefits for clemency beneficiaries.”

Helping Lance navigate the complex legal terrain he faces is attorney Jim Taylor alongside law student and Army veteran Nick Kirwan. Jim is a Missoula-based attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, though he is not representing Lance in his ACLU capacity, but as a pro-bono case per a BAR referral program. Jim has a deep respect for veterans, which multiplied due to trips he took to Afghanistan.

While Lance’s situation is not particularly uncommon, Jim is confident that his case is unique. “I can understand that maybe you’re not going to treat people who evaded the draft and went to Canada the same way you’re going to treat people who served honorably, but I can’t for the life of me think of a reason why somebody who served honorably, was wounded, and suffers from those injuries should not be receiving benefits. There’s no moral justification for that,” Taylor says. “I don’t care what the law says.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs is notorious for denying benefits, losing paperwork and relying on a variety of excuses from budget shortfalls to overwhelming workloads to electronic data filing errors. Most of the veterans I’ve spoken to recognize major problems within the VA, and attempts to overhaul the system by means of lawsuits are surprisingly numerous. “There’s been many class-action suits but I don’t know whatever happens with them,” Lance saysEven with a federal judge, the VA Turns around and says ‘we’re appealing the decision.’ And that’s what they do: they outlive you.”

“If you look at the number of people nationwide that have pending cases, it’s routine that veterans are denied benefits,” says Taylor. “There are an enormous number of cases pending before the VA. The law student helping me on this case is another military vet who has had benefits denied to him. It happens all the time to people and they have to work their way through the system, and most of them do it without access to attorneys.”

“It would be great if they didn’t do this to any other Vietnam-era vets. As time goes by there are fewer and fewer of them,” observes Taylor. “I think it’s wrong that we’re denying these people benefits that served honorably and went AWOL after they came back to the states, for whatever reason. If you look into those situations I think you would find almost uniformly they were suffering from PTSD from their military service.”

This April, the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School filed a class action suit on behalf of Marine Corps veteran Conley Monk Jr. and thousands of other veterans.[3] The lawsuit, which involves veterans who are facing medical and financial hardships, claims that long waits amount to an outright denial of benefits, and calls for a court order to force the V.A. to make decisions within 30 days on every appeal that has been pending for more than a year.[4]

It’s a continuation of another suit filed last year that would have provided veterans like Lance a chance to present evidence to upgrade their eligibility for benefits, including disability pay. In the November 2014 issue of The American Legion Magazine, Tom Philpott writes:

“Tens of thousands of veterans discharged under other-than-honorable (OTH) conditions who were later diagnosed with post-traumatic-stress-disorder, or can present evidence they suffered from war-related stress, have fresh chances to seek upgrades to their discharges and gain eligibility for veterans benefits, including disability pay…It seeks relief for tens of thousands of veterans who developed PTSD in service and received OTH discharges.

“The complaint says that as a result of undiagnosed PTSD, these veterans were unable to perform assigned military duties and were discharged for misconduct attributable to their post-traumatic-stress. Yet over the years, the military ‘has near-categorically refused to correct these wrongful discharges.’”[5]

And OTH discharges are often the result of deliberate efforts by the military to leverage traumatized soldiers afflicted with PTSD into early dismissal. Distressed soldiers typically turn to alcoholism as a means of masking their pain and inability to sleep upon returning home, resulting in DUIs and other alcohol related offenses that are used as an excuse to dishonorably discharge them. Last month, NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling reported:

“…since January 2009, the Army has “separated” 22,000 soldiers for “misconduct” after they came back from Iraq and Afghanistan and were diagnosed with mental health problems…Why would commanders kick out soldiers for misconduct, instead of giving them more intensive treatment or a medical retirement on the grounds that they have persistent mental health problems? …It takes less time and money to get rid of problem soldiers on the grounds of misconduct.”[6]

By exploiting this technicality, the US government manages to save billions of dollars in aid to veterans that don’t qualify for benefits. And for those who do qualify, getting a response from the VA is something of a crap shoot. This August Alexander Reed Kelly reported:

“Internal memos leaked by Veterans Affairs employees over the years have shown that dishonest bookkeeping encouraged by department managers has resulted in the widespread denial of medical care to combat veterans. …an agency document—leaked by staffer Scott Davis—showed that more than 35,000 veterans had been denied care because of an “error” in the department’s computer system. Nearly half of these veterans have waited more than five years for coverage, and one document indicated that nearly one-third of those who had been waiting have died.”[7]

But perhaps the most egregious account of VA negligence comes from an article entitled, I Survived the VA that appeared in the Huffington Post this August, describing the harrowing story of a soldier suffering from Behcet’s Syndrome, an auto-inflammatory disease that causes swelling and degeneration of major organs, and legions that spew bloody puss from numerous open sores that are often the size of quarters. After months of patiently waiting for a call from the VA, he discovered that he’d been placed on a fraudulent wait list designed to go nowhere. Meanwhile the inflammation was smothering his organs, shutting down his central nervous system, and overwhelming his senses with crippling pain. When he was finally able to make an appointment, the doctor accused him of picking at his wounds and implied that he was a mentally-ill hypochondriac. It wasn’t until he took a video of himself caring for his wounds that he was able to convince medical professionals that he wasn’t fabricating his illness. While his condition is now irreversible, the resulting ER visit saved his life. He is still in perpetual limbo with the VA bureaucracy.[8]

The mistreatment and outright disregard for veterans seems to be a mainstay of the American Military so common it’s almost cliché, and charts as far back into history as one cares to chronicle America’s wars. One of the most notable instances occurred in the summer of 1932 during the Bonus Army march, when thousands of World War I veterans gathered in Washington D.C. to demand cash redemptions for their service certificates. The basic sentiment that motivated the Bonus Army exists as strongly today as it ever has – it is easier and cheaper to forget the soldiers once they’ve left the military than it is to take care of them.

As far as Lance’s situation is concerned, the Code of Federal Regulations states that his AWOL status does not bar him from benefits “if there are compelling circumstances to warrant the prolonged unauthorized absence.” Given that he saw combat, has suffered from PTSD ever since, and was ordered to violently suppress lawful anti-war protests in Washington D.C., it seems as though said “compelling circumstances” are there for any who care to look. But however compelling those circumstances might seem, and in spite of president Ford’s pardon, the VA Board has concluded that Lance’s undesirable discharge from the Marine Corps resulted from his “own willful and persistent misconduct,” and that “eligibility for veterans’ benefits is not bestowed by reason of his clemency discharge.”

Lance is on the verge of giving up hope. His friends and family can hear it in his voice every time they talk with him; they can see it in his eyes, they can feel it in his gestures. Despite his willingness to endure combat for America, he feels invisible in the eyes of his country. Close to losing his house, spending his days in agonizing pain, haunted by memories of the war, he sees little if any reason to hang on any longer. “I’m out of time,” he says. “It’s like my dad used to say: ‘Going up against the system is like beating yourself in the head with a hammer, and it feels so good when you quit.’ Well, I’m ready to quit.”

Situations like Lance’s can help provide a window of insight into why 22 veterans commit suicide every single day in this country.[9] While Jim’s suit presents Lance’s best possible chance of living out his golden years with dignity, the VA will likely continue to deliberately ignore Lance’s pleas unless they are forced to help him.

Last month Senator Daines mailed letters throughout Montana pledging his support for veterans, listing several pieces of legislation Daines has introduced and short descriptions of their intended purpose. In particular, S. 1567 applies directly to Lance’s situation, for it creates a “presumption in favor of the veteran when petitioning the Secretary of Defense for an upgrade in discharge status based on medical evidence certified by the VA.”[10] Unfortunately, this bill is a long way from getting passed, and every day that goes by is an excruciating ordeal for Lance. He needs help yesterday, not tomorrow.

While Jim is confident that the unique qualities of Lance’s case provide a good possibility for a win, he recognizes the need for political pressure. “We’re going to be reaching out directly to Senator Daines, to Senator Tester, to Congressman Zinke,” he says. “The fastest way this can be resolved is if our congressional delegation puts political pressure on the VA and they act responsibly and get this man the benefits he’s entitled to.”

As with most veterans, Lance relives the horrors from his past every day of his life. But at this point in his life, Lance’s chief concern is the wellbeing of his grandchildren, and his darkest fear is that they will follow in his footsteps. “I’ve got five grandkids,” he says. “And whenever I see them, they’re playing some kind of war video game. How do we keep these kids from going in the military?”

Though I don’t see anything inherently wrong with joining the military, and I didn’t have an answer for Lance at the time he asked it, it eventually occurred to me that the best chance we have of breaking this cycle is for our society to begin ignoring pro-war messages in our media, instead of ignoring our veterans. They understand better than anyone else where militarism leads. Having someone around who has seen the horrors of war with their own eyes, who can relate the reality of combat, is perhaps the only antidote available against the seductive pull of the military-industrial complex. But for Lance to be able to council his grandchildren, he needs to be around to tell the tale, and he won’t be able to do that without adequate access to healthcare.

The reality of how veterans are treated in America stands in stark contrast to the fantasies of military hero worship so effectively manufactured by Hollywood. When I joined, I was sold on delusions of grandeur, as images of ticker-tape parades marched through my imagination. But where did those fantasies come from? In my own experience, films depicting the glory of war have long been used to popularize military actions, steer the historical narrative away from imperialism, and most importantly, maintain a steady flow of naïve American youth into the jaws of the armed services. John Wayne’s WWII film The Longest Day has provided this for several generations, and helped to reinforce within my young brain the binary fiction of American heroes overcoming the evil forces of darkness threatening the purity of our innocence the world over.

As the decades counted forward and the motion pictures became more sophisticated, films became more graphic and realistic, in turn ramping up the heroism factor as well. Even extremely horrifying films like Black Hawk Down and Full Metal Jacket still somehow managed to paint a picture of valor and excitement for those who have never experienced the profound suffering, permanent injuries, and mental scars that wars leave behind. Even if the picture had an anti-war message, kids like me fixated on how cool the soldiers looked shooting their cutting-edge weapons, riding around in vehicles that were as state-of-the-art as they were sexy.

Very few films ever depict the reality of war’s aftermath. The only two I’m aware of are The Deer Hunter, and Born on the Fourth of July – two phenomenal films that are widely unknown because they don’t provide the unrealistic happy ending that most movie goers have come to expect from the “entertainment industry.” Today’s so-called entertainment is characterized by interactive mental programming like Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, Army of Two, Halo, Metal of Honor, Killzone, Halflife, Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell. When I was in high school I scoffed at the idea that the deluge of violence pouring through my retinas and into my mind could be altering the way I think. Looking back I’m able to see now that the reason I considered these first-person shooter games as benign entertainment was due to the simple fact that I was too young to understand how such stimulation could create a craving for destruction that was further frustrated by society’s ills.

Violence is the path of least resistance, which is what makes it so seductive, especially to America’s youth, who are next in line to fight in America’s next illegal war and in-turn, the next generation to be denied basic health benefits when their wartime injuries become too heavy a burden to bear.

Our leaders need to consider the human costs of their war profiteering. We are in desperate need of a political class who will no longer send our sons and daughters into calculated quagmires simply because it’s good for business. But until that happens, America needs to at least stop chanting meaningless slogans like “support our troops” until our veterans are actually provided for. The VA needs to provide our veterans with adequate care, and start treating all of our veterans, regardless of their discharge status, like human beings. Veterans should be afforded the same enthusiasm that our young recruits receive, and men like Lance Hartley should not have to return from war only to spend the rest of their lives fighting for something as fundamental as health care. If the government is willing to send you into hell, the least they can do is provide you with a parachute.

 

Check out the radio broadcast of Lance’s story here

Sources:

[1] Robertson v. Gibson. United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. 21 July 2014. Print.

[2] Izzo, Rebecca. “In Need of Correction: How the Army Board for Correction of Military Records Is Failing Veterans with PTSD.” The Yale Law Journal. N.p., 26 Mar. 2014. Web.

[3] “Veterans Clinic Files Nation-Wide Class Action, Challenging Delays in VA Benefits Processing.” Veterans Clinic Files Nation-Wide Class Action. Yale Law School, 6 Apr. 2015. Web. 03 Nov. 2015.

[4] Monk v. Mcdonald. United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. 6 Apr. 2015. Print.

[5] Philpott, Tom. “Discharges to Be Reviewed in PTSD Cases.” American Legion Magazine Nov. 2014.

[6] Zwerdling, Daniel. “Missed Treatment: Soldiers With Mental Health Issues Dismissed For ‘Misconduct'” Montana Public Radio (n.d.): 28 Oct. 2015. Web.

[7] Kelly, Alexander Reed. “Truthdiggers of the Week: Whistleblowers in the Department of Veterans Affairs.” (2015): Truthdig. 15 Aug. 2015. Web.

[8] Castellanos, Cat Del Valle. “I Survived The VA: A Veteran Tells His Shocking Story.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 28 Aug. 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

[9] Kemp, Janet, PhD, and Robert Robert Bossarte, PhD. Suicide Data Report, 2012. Rep. N.p.: Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Services Suicide Prevention Program, n.d. Print.

[10] Daines, Steve. Working For Montana Veterans. Washington D.C.: United States Senate, 2015. Print.

bce2b000363ef3a8dfe06db346bb84c3This post was composed by Outer Limits producer and Army veteran RemBrandt Miller.
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