“'Before I left, I never smoked, not once,' he said, as he took another long drag, letting the smoke linger in his mouth before letting it loose with a slow exhale. 'There were a lot of things I didn’t do, ' he said. 'That tour f***ed me up. When I got back, they expected me to return to life like it was before. No s***, like nothing had ever changed'.”
"Things had changed for Marcus, who said he couldn’t manage to keep his job as a welder because he would get sudden flashbacks to that one day in the Afghan village."
"Change had also occurred for his 26-year-old wife, whom he said left him shortly after he returned, adding additional stress for the veteran to overcome."
“'I’m the one who drove her away,' Marcus admitted, wiping away several tears. 'I would yell at her constantly. I hit her. I was never, never like this before I went to Afghanistan, never'.”
Posted on Tue Jun 30, 2009 at 08:45:07 PM PDT
This year marks a milestone for the Oregon Army National Guard.
More than 3,000 soldiers have already left or are preparing for deployment to Iraq in 2009. It will be the largest deployment for the Oregon Army National Guard since World War II.
However, questions have recently been raised about the care veterans receive upon their return from war. Some Oregon weekend warriors are finding a Department of Veterans Affairs that is unwilling or unable to care for the long-term physical and mental disabilities they are now facing.
With little outside help, some have given up the fight and others continue to struggle for the benefits they say they deserve.
The Veterans Affairs office in Portland disputes these claims, saying it is doing more for veterans now than any time in the past, and points to increased services and a new processing facility in Hillsboro that has prepared the federal agency to aid all returning veterans.
In November 2006, then-23-year-old Army specialist Todd Marcus was on patrol in a small Afghan village outside of Kabul.
He carried his M-16 barrel down with his finger just inside the trigger housing. He sweltered under more than 50 pounds of combat gear, including body armor and a Kevlar helmet. Beads of perspiration trickled down to the palms of his gloved hands. Even with the fingertips cut off, the salty runoff made the cuts in his hands sting and itch.
Approximately 100 meters to his left, Marcus saw an Afghan police officer walking a few meters behind another police officer in patrol formation. The officer looked nervous as he scanned the rooftops, looking for those who might intend to kill him. Each little boy, each expectant mother could have been a suicide bomber, paid or extorted by insurgents to end their lives in a desperate bid to feed their families.
Suddenly, a bright flash of light filled Marcus’ peripheral vision, followed by a percussion of hot wind that knocked him aside. His sunglasses flew off and the smell of cordite wafted through the air with a cloud of concrete and dust. He looked toward the ground where the blast originated. The Afghan police officer that was walking just yards from him lay in a pool of blood along with two other officers. An improvised explosive device planted inside the corner of a bullet-riddled concrete home had taken their lives.
Once the carnage and chaos was over, all Marcus could do was cry.
Although it was the only combat action he saw, Marcus said he was severely wounded, not medically, but mentally. However, the same government that agreed to send hundreds of thousands to war is failing to provide veterans like Marcus with proper care upon their return.
Lack of funding, personnel, and an overtaxed veterans administrative system has left many without the care they were promised, according to a 2006 report by the General Accounting Office.
“(The) VA does not know the number of veterans it now treats for PTSD,” and more significantly, the “VA will be unable to estimate its capacity for treating additional veterans… and therefore, unable to plan for an increase in demand for these services,” it said in the report. Additionally, outdated procedures and processes have slowed ability to process veterans' benefits significantly, said Troy Spurlock, a veteran who has dealt with the Veterans Benefits Administration for himself and others.
Marcus, whose name has been changed for fear of reprisal from his former military leaders, sat in a worn easy chair in his Salem studio apartment sucking on his third Marlboro in less than 20 minutes and nervously twirling an ink pen from Salem Hospital. A tall bottle of a generic prescription antidepressant sat on the end table he crafted out of leftover two-by-fours from a fencing project he worked last year. The shades were pulled and the glimmer from his lamp highlighted beads of perspiration on his forehead in the warm room.
“Before I left, I never smoked, not once,” he said, as he took another long drag, letting the smoke linger in his mouth before letting it loose with a slow exhale. “There were a lot of things I didn’t do,” he said. “That tour f***ed me up. When I got back, they expected me to return to life like it was before. No s***, like nothing had ever changed.”
Things had changed for Marcus, who said he couldn’t manage to keep his job as a welder because he would get sudden flashbacks to that one day in the Afghan village.
Change had also occurred for his 26-year-old wife, whom he said left him shortly after he returned, adding additional stress for the veteran to overcome.
“I’m the one who drove her away,” Marcus admitted, wiping away several tears. “I would yell at her constantly. I hit her. I was never, never like this before I went to Afghanistan, never.”
In 2008, Marcus called and made his first appointment with a Veterans Affairs specialist. It took months to get the initial appointment with the compensation and pension specialists and months more for the VBA to make a decision on his claim. His claim for benefits and treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder was denied.
“They said I was faking it,” he said. “Wel,l f*** them. If they can’t look me in the eye and see that I’m f***ed up, I don’t know what to do.”
Spurlock, a Newberg resident and employee with the Yamhill County Sheriff’s Office knows the struggles veterans face as they attempt to get the care to which they believe they are entitled. As a military police officer and a private during the first Gulf War, he was exposed to unidentified chemicals that caused fibromyalgia.
He also has a host of other ailments, injuries and post-traumatic stress requiring ongoing care. Additionally, he was systematically harassed and threatened by soldiers in his own unit.
However, unlike Marcus, he fought the system and has seen some, though not total, success serving as his own advocate.
“As soon as I got out I started the process,” Spurlock said. “I immediately realized that it’s a typical government bureaucratic process that acts much like an insurance company does. When you do finally get to see someone, you get a quick five-minute 'Hi, how are you, what’s your claim and thank you I’ll read your file.' You really have to jump through hoops to substantiate your claim.
“It’s not an adequate medical exam and doesn’t even touch the complexities of issues soldiers go through,” he added.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is divided into three unique parts: the National Cemetery Division, the Veterans Hospital Administration (VHA) and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).
Portland VHA spokesman Mike McAleer works with Oregon’s returning soldiers who return from deployments overseas. He said more is being done now to help soldiers reintegrate and get the benefits they need than any time in the past.
“We send folks to where the soldiers are,” McAleer said. “We provide them with information for enrollment and try to get them into the medical system. We also try to get them information about the services we provide. We want them to be successful when they enter the civilian-warrior portion of their lives.”
There are currently more than 330,000 vets eligible for medical benefits in Oregon, although McAleer said only one-third are taking advantage of them. Oregon Guard men and women returning from active duty are entitled to full medical coverage for five years, including mental health services.
Returning veterans need to sign up, even if they aren’t ready to file a claim,” McAleer said. “They can even do it online. It will streamline the process when they are ready to file a claim."
To file a claim, there are many hands in the process. Veterans can file medical disability claims themselves or with the help of a specialist. The claim is filed through the VBA. If accepted, a new compensation and pension processing center in Hillsboro conducts medical and psychiatric exams. More than 1,000 requests for examination from the VBA are processed at the Hillsboro facility.
“This is where we compile information and send it to the VBA for processing,” McAleer said. “I think we’re doing a good job of reaching out to veterans and want to do more to help them.”
Once exams are complete, the files return to the Veterans Benefits Administration for further processing.
“Our organization has established a strategic goal of completing a claim in 125 days,” said Lisa Pozzebon, Assistant Director of the VA Regional Office in Portland. “Currently we have an average of 146 days.”
Claims that require a highly specialized exam or ones in the appeals process take longer, she said.
Spurlock spends part of his off time trying to reach veterans and help them navigate the stormy VA paperwork waters. His MySpace web site, www.myspace.com/support4veterans, has links to nonprofits working to help vets. Additionally, he has made it his mission to help his colleague, Tim Wehr of Sheridan, receive benefits he initially applied for in 1970 after returning from Vietnam with a purple heart, bronze star and many other decorations and awards.
Wehr currently receives a small amount of money as disability payments for an injury to his ear and PTSD. The Yamhill County Sheriff’s deputy said he still has flashbacks, especially when he hears a helicopter. He said he used to compulsively drop and roll any time he heard a helicopter, but recently was able to overcome this behavior.
Most of his military and medical records were lost in a 1972 fire that destroyed a federal records building and left many vets unable to prove their service and disabilities. He reapplied for benefits in the early 1980s, this time for skin conditions, which later included skin cancer related to exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide used extensively during the Vietnam War. While his claim for PTSD and hearing problems was accepted, it was denied for his chloracne (Agent Orange-related skin condition) and a knee injury. He gave up trying – until he met Spurlock through a mutual friend.
In 2007, Spurlock was given the power of attorney for Wehr’s VA claims. Spurlock has managed to pull together many of Wehr’s old records to justify claims; however, both men feel the VBA is impeding their efforts. Several of the letters to and from the VBA regarding Wehr’s claims are available at www.WillametteLive.com.
Veterans Service Center manager Kevin Kalama said claims for conditions related to Agent Orange exposure don’t require the same level of documentation as other service-related disabilities.
“We will presume he was exposed to Agent Orange because of where he was in Vietnam during that time,” he said. “If we can find a record that he stepped foot in Vietnam during that time period, it is presumed he had exposure.” Wehr said this has not been true with his case.
The most recent denial came when the VA claimed that Spurlock’s power of attorney privileges had ended, despite no paperwork showing a POA is appointed for a limited time.
“The VA is continuing to stonewall my claims any and every chance it gets without clear and legal justification,” Wehr said in a letter to the Veterans Affairs office in Portland dated June 15, 2009. “Meanwhile, I will be preparing to submit my entire file to Senator Wyden’s office and request a congressional investigation into this utter lack of professionalism and lack of attention to detail in this matter.”
With the current deployments, Spurlock said troops need to take steps while in Iraq to reduce problems later.
“Keep a copy of all of your medical records,” he advised. “Any time you see a doctor for anything, you need to keep that. Don’t wait too long… and don’t be dismayed by any instant denial. That is just routine.”
Veterans should also research their own medical conditions and have the information on hand when talking to the VA.
“The biggest thing is not to give up,” Spurlock emphasized. “They will try to wear you down, but don’t let them.”
Making sure all medical records are available is crucial to avoid delays, McAleer acknowledged. Currently the VA is working with the Department of Defense for access to medical and personnel records. He said this will help veterans and the VBA to process claims more efficiently.
Although he couldn’t speak about any individual cases, he said Marcus must make every effort to go to a clinic and get screened for PTSD and any other ailments.
“We have a clinic in Salem,” he said. “We are trying to make it as easy as possible for our veterans to get the help and services they need.”
One of the biggest pieces of advice that was offered by McAleer is to file all the known claims at one time.
“The process can be really frustrating if you are doing it in bits and pieces,” he said.
He added that veterans should keep a call list of people they served with to verify claims if needed.
Despite efforts to treat returning troops, one thing is certain: many of these complexities are leading to tragic endings.
In 2008, the Army reported nearly 150 suicides within its ranks. Every military branch except the Coast Guard has seen an increase in suicide rates. However, steps are being taken to curb the rise.
Both the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act, increasing mental-health assessments, and the Wounded Warriors Act, designed to help soldiers transitioning from active-duty to veteran status, are intended to aid active duty and returning soldiers. Studies are under way at the Madigan Army Medical Center near Fort Lewis, Wash., to assist in this effort.
This is little consolation for veterans who don’t have a desire to kill themselves, but simply want care for physical and mental injuries and benefits they were promised upon enlistment.
Marcus said his experience with the VA has left him soured and he doesn’t have any immediate plans to return. He admits he occasionally daydreams about refilling his antidepressants and taking them in a one-night alcohol-induced party for one.
He said he won’t do it, because “God doesn’t accept cowards who take the easy way out.”
In the back of his mind, he believes he’ll get help one day, or simply be cured by a miracle.
“I don’t know what may change, tomorrow or next year,” he said. “F*** the VA. I don’t need 'em. One of these days I’ll get my head straight and have a family. It’ll all be good.”