By Ray Parrish
Many veterans use non-VA healthcare facilities because VA regulations place bureaucratic hurdles in front of the veterans who are least able to overcome them and the people that these veterans go to for help either don’t know how or simply refuse to serve them because of their own prejudice.
There’s an ever-growing population of veterans, from ALL eras, with severe, untreated mental disabilities, especially PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). So severe, in fact, that the most out-of-control veterans commit some kind of misconduct while still in uniform and they end up with an “other than Honorable” military discharge. The VA has rules that allow them to grant benefits to these vets, but veterans are told the opposite by everyone they go to for help, until they come to our office. The VA denies the claims in the beginning and many veterans don’t know that they need to appeal and ask for a “character of service determination.” They can then win full benefits with an appeal if it includes a properly worded psychological evaluation explaining that the veteran was insane at the time of the misconduct. It doesn’t have to be a PTSD diagnosis and it doesn’t have to have caused the misconduct. However, if either is the case, this is an opportunity to make those claims.
Since disciplinary charges for misconduct pre-empt the medical disability retirement process, many vets end up with these “bad” discharges even after being recommended for military medical retirement for PTSD or another mental disability. The veteran may simply have given up on the military’s inadequate, inappropriate or nonexistent treatment and gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave). Misconduct involving drugs, alcohol or violence are also common. In addition, many veterans with PTSD are discharged for a “personality disorder” which the VA says is non-service connected. Once again a properly worded psychological evaluation can correct the diagnosis and the veteran can then get full VA benefits. It should be noted that many of these veterans have chronic medical conditions or illnesses that the VA will not treat until a favorable “character of service” determination is made.
We have “VA Claims Agents” accredited by the VA to represent veterans and their families in VA disability claims. They have the patience to deal with this population of veterans, the experience to write successful appeals and experience working with healthcare professionals in this specialized area. No other veterans group has a therapist on staff. This therapist, Hans Buwalda, does individual, couple, and group counseling for veterans and their loved ones. She also writes these psychological evaluations and trains volunteer mental health professionals, mainly from The Soldiers Project, which has 40,000 volunteers nationwide.
Our objective is to get these disabled veterans the treatment and housing that they so desperately need. For this to happen we need to make them eligible for benefits from the VA. Because the VA recognizes its limitations, they are funding non-VA, community-based service providers for healthcare, housing, job training and, most importantly, veteran-run peer-counseling. The actual number of such veterans and the cost savings to state, county and city budgets is a simple research task. These results may indicate that it would be cost effective for state and local healthcare providers to employ people in their facilities who can help these veterans win their claims for federal benefits.
Ray Parrish is the Benefits Director at VVAW’s Military and Veterans Counseling Service.