Protecting America's wounded

Democratic senators have stepped up to defend benefits for soldiers traumatized by combat.

Published September 25, 2005 12:58AM (EDT)

The Senate passed a bill Thursday to halt a plan by the Department of Veterans Affairs that lawmakers and veterans' advocates say could reopen the psychological wounds of thousands of American war vets.

In May, the V.A. quietly began to draw up plans to review nearly 72,000 individual cases of veterans who in the last five years have been classified as disabled and unemployable because of mental trauma from war. Veterans' advocates have argued that a review would mainly be an attempt to cut costs, as the price tag of caring for veterans, like that of the Iraq war, continues to soar. They've also said the review would force traumatized veterans to prove their mental wounds to the department all over again, resulting in further anguish and exacerbating the stigma about war-inflicted psychological damage -- which already prevents many soldiers from seeking the help they need.

The V.A. plan, which Salon was the first to report on Aug. 9, would revisit decisions to grant disability benefits to veterans incapacitated by posttraumatic stress disorder. After they get out of the military, veterans can get healthcare from the V.A. and disability payments for wounds or injuries incurred from service; vets judged to be unemployable can collect approximately $2,000 a month.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., successfully negotiated to put language into a military construction bill that derails the V.A. review unless the department can better justify the need for it. The V.A. decided to start the review of PTSD disability decisions after a department inspector general report in May showed the agency had been inconsistent in granting benefits for veterans suffering from the condition. One concern was fraud: The inspector general found 2.5 percent of PTSD claims were "potentially fraudulent." Veterans groups counter that even if true, that number would represent a significantly smaller proportion than the number of veterans who have been wrongfully denied benefits for combat-related mental trauma.

"Veterans with PTSD deserve the V.A.'s compassion and support, not costly investigations, penalties and stigma," Murray said in a statement Thursday. "Veterans should not be punished for mistakes the V.A. has made, and that's what my amendment ensures.

Murray added in a phone call Friday that the study was sending the wrong signal to troops: "I am very concerned that at a time when we have men and women coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan who may be suffering from PTSD, this review says this is something we don't take seriously," she said. "PTSD is serious and it is something we care about." Murray also said it was wrong that the V.A. wanted to investigate veterans who got money for PTSD -- but not look into veterans whose claims had been denied. "It seems to me to be a very one-sided approach," she said.

Veterans groups are cheering the amended legislation. Steve Smithson, deputy director for claims services at the American Legion, said the V.A. should concentrate its limited resources on getting benefits to veterans, not taking benefits away. "Right now the V.A. is taxed for resources," Smithson said. "Sometimes Congress needs to protect the V.A. from itself."

Rick Weidman, director of government relations at Vietnam Veterans of America, called it a "witch hunt" for the V.A. to go back and look -- again -- at whether 72,000 veterans are disabled by mental trauma. "Sen. Murray is to be commended," he said. "It is just one more thing she has done to support veterans of every generation. We at Vietnam Veterans of America commend her for it."

Murray worked on the amendment with Barack Obama, D-Ill., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii. Obama introduced legislation last summer, passed by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, that would require the V.A. to standardize procedures for assessing PTSD and better train staff.

The military construction bill now has to be reconciled with a House version. If the amendment passes both chambers, it will be the second time in four months Congress has acted on veterans issues first reported by Salon. In May, Congress passed an amendment by Obama to stop Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington from charging outpatient soldiers for their meals while they recover from the wounds of war. Salon first reported on that in January.

The review of PTSD cases has already begun for a handful of the 72,000 veterans, such as Vietnam vet Ron Nesler, who has already suffered some of the cost that veterans' advocates say is likely to come of it.

"I thought I had proved this once and it almost killed me," Nesler said in a telephone interview last month. Nesler, who served in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971, corresponded with Salon during August, after the V.A. sent him a letter in Las Cruces, New Mexico, saying the department was going to look again at whether Nesler deserved his monthly payments for 100 percent disability for PTSD.

In a letter dated Aug. 11, the V.A. said that although the department had previously found Nesler disabled by PTSD, the department would once again need a description of traumatic events, reports from doctors, and official military records that might have recorded traumatic events in Vietnam. "What they are saying to me right now is that I lied about the stressors," Nesler said then.

He said the process of once again having to prove his mental anguish made his anxiety, sleeping problems, flashbacks and intense fits of rage much worse. His psychiatrist wrote the V.A. last month that, "Mr. Nesler can not endure another 2 year process such as the one he went through when his disability was first approved ... It seems to me that this is grossly unfair to Mr. Nesler as well as totally inappropriate."

The V.A. has since decided that Nesler does deserve his disability checks for PTSD. "I have been completely absolved," Nesler said by phone Friday. "But it almost put me in my grave. It was a horrible thing."

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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