More than a third of veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), yet only a tiny number of veterans’ hospitals treat the problem. In 2005, the Veterans Administration acknowledged a backlog of 350,000 disability claims. It is now estimated to be almost 600,000. What possible impact could be made on a national scandal like that by a handful of aging Korea and Vietnam vets on the Central Coast?
Last summer, led by three salty old guys from Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, and San Luis Obispo, they filed suit. In January, they won their first victory.
“Our average age is 75,” guffawed Bob Handy, U.S. Navy (Ret.), of Santa Barbara. “We’re not afraid of the bastards. For a group of old farts like us to take on something like this is pretty unique. A lot of guys our age would be out vegetating.” Handy, 75, is chairman of the Santa Barbara-based Veterans United for Truth (VUFT). Sandy Cook of San Luis Obispo, 72, is vice chairman, and Russ Weed of Santa Maria, 75, is treasurer.
In a sitcom, Handy would be cast as an Irish bartender. His thatch of white hair spilling down to his gold-rimmed glasses, his plump rosy cheeks, and his jovial manner raise the suspicion that his mother was born in Ireland. She was. Treasurer Weed was a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force. He resembles Handy so closely that people confuse the two. Cook was a Lt. Colonel in the Army. His receding hairline and lantern chin give his face an aerodynamic look that, together with darkened lenses in his glasses, suggest an aging Uncle Duke of Doonesbury. All together, the trio looks like two Wilford Brimleys and a Jack Nicholson, and they are just as cantankerous. “We are war veterans who have come to believe that both serving military and veterans are being treated shamefully,” they thunder in their basic flyer. VUFT takes no stand on Iraq but pointedly calls for “truth in justification for war” along with truth in delivery of benefits. VUFT assembled in 2005 to lobby for veterans and to document reports of increasing strain on a military called to fight long-term foreign wars.
Group leaders met one another earlier in an unlikely venue for vets-the veterans caucus of the California Democratic Party. Handy is a party director representing the Central Coast. “In 2004, we started talking to officers and NCOs in all branches,” he explained. The vets heard heart-wrenching accounts of reservists’ difficulty in returning to their jobs after their tours, backlogs in approval of disability claims, delays in medical treatment, and PTSD cases misclassified as preexisting personality problems (a condition ineligible for Veterans Administration assistance), not to mention multiplying reports of suicides.
At the 2005 state Democratic convention, the veterans discussed what they were hearing. Their reports were so similar and so troubling that they made a pivotal decision. “We realized that veterans’ issues were non-partisan,” Handy continued. “So we founded VUFT. By then, we had Republicans, Independents, Declined to State, Greens, everything.” Their first objective was AB 2750, the Wartime Shared Sacrifice Act. Twelve VUFT members collared Santa Barbara Assemblymember Pedro Nava and convinced him to introduce the measure to establish a state commission to investigate problems of California vets. “The states must step up where the feds are failing,” Cook trumpeted in VUFT’s newsletter. Nava and four cosponsors got the measure onto the floor of the Assembly in early 2006. It swept both houses by a combined vote of 117-0, but was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. “We already have a commission,” Schwarzenegger claimed.
“After we talked to the officers and NCOs and then the governor vetoed it, it pissed me off,” Handy muttered.
Last spring, Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a Berkeley nonprofit, teamed with blue-chip San Francisco law firm Morrison & Foerster to prepare a class-action lawsuit against the Veterans Administration based on repeated failures to provide medical and mental care to returning veterans. They needed plaintiffs, but it would need to be somebody who would be fearless against potential bureaucratic retaliation. They could not use a weak-kneed plaintiff. “I knew the DRA people, so they called us,” Handy recalled. VUFT signed on immediately, along with Veterans for Common Sense, based in Washington, D.C.
The 73-page filing, Disabled Veterans v. Nicholson (James Nicholson headed the Veterans Administration then), was unveiled in July. It targeted the administration’s waiting list, its inadequate services, and long delays in treatment for PTSD, “the signature problem” of returning vets. The suit sought no damages but aimed to stop repeated violations of a 1988 federal law that guaranteed two years of healthcare for returning vets.
On December 15, just three days after the House Committee on Veterans Affairs induced the Veterans Administration to admit it did not collect data on veterans’ suicides, the agency made its response to the suit. It did not argue the merits but said that civil courts have no authority and that the 1988 law does not mandate two years of care but only what the agency can afford. It also claimed the plaintiffs had no right to sue. VUFT was outraged.
“What the administration is essentially saying is they could decide to put all veterans’ claims on ice for 10 years and then flip a coin and there would be nothing a veteran could do about it,” Handy said. “Every veteran and every citizen in our country should be appalled.”
But on January 11, Judge Samuel Conti, an 85-year-old World War II veteran appointed by Richard Nixon, gave the green light for the suit to be heard on its merits. He also overruled the Veterans Administration’s contention that it was required to provide only as much care as its budget allowed. “We’re winning skirmishes,” Handy said, as if setting up a Budweiser. But he is too seasoned by reversal to see victory at hand. “I think we’re making progress. What we have on our side is what’s right,” he said. “We will come out on top. Eventually.”