Santa Barbara veterans met with Congressmember Lois Capps Tuesday morning to share the challenges of navigating the bureaucratic federal system. Capps talked about the importance of their stories, noting that these experiences might benefit others in the future. “Even if you don’t receive immediate help, it might help others,” she said.
Cheri Owen, Desert Storm vet, was in the Air Force and served in the Gulf War in 1993. During her service she developed PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), was a victim of sexual harassment, and later developed multiple sclerosis. Unable to work and weighed down by medical bills, Owen was getting “very little service connection [disability].” She talked about the frustrations of dealing with a system where there isn’t always a human face. The veterans’ service office is a 1800 number, she says. It was not until a visit to the Veterans’ Affairs office that she was recommended to contact Wendy Motta, district representative. Motta was a person, not a number, said Owen, and that made a world of a difference.
Together, they identified the big hold up in Owen’s automobile allowance and limited service connection. It was one piece of paper that verified she wasn’t working that no one had ever told her was missing. Once faxed over, her percentage increased to 100 percent connected, and her automobile allowance went through as well.
The system won’t look at the big picture, Owen said, the offices don’t communicate with one another. “So many of the documents I was sending were falling through the cracks,” she said. The different offices access documents through an online service once they have been scanned in, but when are they scanning the papers? asked Owen.
With Motta’s guidance, Owen also learned she could be re-rated. With secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, it is likely that her condition will worsen and, in turn, her need will increase.
Now that she is receiving services, she commends her doctors and the attention she is receiving. “The VA [Veterans’ Affairs] does have good stuff, but you have to access the services,” said Capps.
Ashley Nancarrow spoke next, explaining her late husband, Jeffrey Nancarrow, was enlisted 2002-2005 and served in Iraq in 2003. He returned severely wounded, having survived several explosions. He also returned with PTSD; he took his life in 2012.
It was four years before Ashley Nancarrow began receiving Dependents and Indemnity Compensation (DIC). The ongoing investigation of his death prevented her from receiving any benefits. With the VA there is no gray area, she said, it must be black and white. However, that did not prevent Nancarrow from fighting for the benefits she deserved: “He fought, now it’s my turn,” she said.
Under Motta’s guidance, Nancarrow filed for a video hearing rather than a traditional travel board hearing. Travel board hearings normally have a five-year wait time, whereas video hearings occur within a couple of months. During the wait, Nancarrow studied VA law to prepare. She was approved and granted the benefits.
However, there is more to fight for. Her husband was never awarded his Purple Heart, Nancarrow said. “But now, I feel this victory has given me the strength to keep fighting.”
Throughout their discussion, the veterans and Nancarrow recalled the difficulties they all faced before receiving their benefits. They talked about the veteran families who must be facing similar obstacles and do not have the same resources or knowledge to make it through the bureaucratic hurdles.
Phil Merrit, Vietnam war veteran, expressed his dissatisfaction with the service at VA offices. Oftentimes they won’t know how to help or what to say “but will thank us for our service,” he said. “Don’t thank me for my service. Do something for my brothers — change the VA.” Other times, they will say the wrong thing all together. “You’ll be dead before you get a dime,” he was once told at a VA office.
Merrit developed PTSD along with a number of health ailments during his last 60 days of service. Merrit volunteered for a study to improve gas masks for soldiers. The study, however, proved to be a human experiment run at Edgewood Chemical Center. Upon arrival at the center, Merrit and the other soldiers were notified that this project was top secret and any unauthorized disclosure could lead to federal jail time.
Gas Chamber Duty
The soldiers went into a gas chamber wearing gas masks. Different gases would be shot into the chamber, and the soldiers were then asked to remove their masks. Soldiers would come out of the room vomiting and coughing, Merrit said. After a while, soldiers didn’t even bother wearing the gas masks because they would be removed regardless.
Merrit withstood 30 days of experimentation, in which 29 different gases were tested on him. He lost teeth, experienced dizziness and loss of memory, along with a list of other symptoms. The soldiers were forbidden from visiting a doctor. Their symptoms, they were assured, would only be temporary.
But because of his symptoms, Merrit was unable to work. At the VA, he was prescribed Trazodone, a sedative and antidepressant, by someone who was not a doctor. He was denied other benefits.
Merrit wrote to Capps, detailing his experience at the VA office and his denial of benefits. That is when he met Wendy Motta. Rather than apply for a regular appeal, which take an average of 2-2.5 years, Wendy had Merrit apply for reconsideration. Comparatively, reconsideration takes an average of a year. During reconsideration, Merrit was deemed incompetent and unable to properly handle any compensation that would be granted. Wendy had Merrit’s doctor write a letter explaining his competence. Merrit was later approved and also deemed competent.
One by one, the veterans and Nancarrow went around the table searching for the words to describe the moment their benefits were approved. It’s relief but not joy. Such a bizarre feeling, they agreed. It’s like righting a wrong, like justice. And while this may be the end of their story, it was only the beginning for other soldiers.
Currently, thousands are being forced to repay enlistment bonuses. Many fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and served multiple combat tours. Capps joined bipartisan coalitions within the House of Representatives to urge the Pentagon and Congress to find a solution for servicemembers facing repayment. She urges others to call their congressional liaison offices.