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Discharged and dishonored: Shortchanging America's veterans
CHRIS ADAMS and ALISON YOUNG
Jan 14, 2006
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VOWS OF CHANGE UNFULFILLEDIn fact, VA data show that delays and the percentage of cases being sent back for re-hearings are basically unchanged since the agency vowed to reduce them. In the mid-1990s, about the time it promised to speed things up, the VA also denied Berlie Bowman's claim.
Bowman had gone to Vietnam in 1967, an outgoing kid following in his father's military footsteps. "When he was drafted, he went without a fuss," said his sister Paulette. "He was a different person when he came back."
He was skittish, quick to anger, uneasy in crowds. The family trod warily around him - "learned to wake him from a distance by touching his feet with something," his VA file said. Over three decades, he ran through 30 jobs; he lived in a small trailer on a curvy North Carolina road. His first disability claim, in 1971 for "nerves," was denied. His second try, in 1995, met a similar fate.
But that time, Bowman pushed back.
Working with an attorney, he assembled evidence to show that he had post-traumatic stress disorder and to document that it had started in Vietnam. The case wound up and down the system, receiving six different rulings, until Bowman fell ill with pancreatic cancer.
On June 16, 2004, the Board of Veterans' Appeals finally agreed with Bowman's claim. It declared that "credible supporting evidence" showed that Bowman suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his time in Vietnam, just as Bowman had contended for nine years.
Bowman's attorney immediately pestered the VA for Bowman's back benefits, dating to 1995. By then, Bowman's cancer treatment had been stopped.
On June 21, attorney Dan Krasnegor or his assistant talked with the VA every two hours. On June 22, they were told that the official disability rating was complete and that only final signatures were needed before Bowman's check for $53,784 could be cut. "Oh, it's in the computer system," they were told. Berlie Bowman died that night, and his claim died with him. No check was sent.
At his burial, Bowman's mother accepted a smartly folded American flag from the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Seventeen old soldiers stood in formation in the rain. A bugler played taps; riflemen splintered the silence with a three-gun salute.
"The march of our comrade Berlie Bowman is over," intoned the VFW's chaplain.
SIDEBAR: CHANGING GOALSThe VA has repeatedly reset its goals for how efficiently it handles veterans' claims. One of its critical measures is the time necessary to decide an initial claim for disability benefits. At one time in the mid-1990s, the VA had a long-term goal to process claims in 60 days. It later increased that to 74 days, and then to 90 days. Average processing time instead ballooned to 223 days by 2002 before coming down slightly.
Last spring, the VA told Congress it was "on track" to reach a processing time of 100 days by the end of 2004. It didn't reach that target; today, the actual time stands at 165 days. The agency recently changed its long-term goal again, to 125 days. The increased goals, the VA said, are due to changes in the law and the nature of claims currently being received.
Part Six : Part Seven : Part Eight : Part Nine : Part 10
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