Justin's Story: The Battle for Veteran Benefits
CAMDENTON - Justin Avery enlisted in the Navy in 1989 as a helicopter mechanic. When he went to re-enlist, the doctors found a problem.
"They found a breathing problem. It turned out that the respirator that they had given me to protect me from the chemicals was the wrong one. The little fibers inside of my lungs had been burned chemically."
He also fell off a helicopter halfway through his service. "Turned out that I had actually gotten compression fractures...it has affected me as I've gotten older to the point that when the muscle spasms I can't walk. So most of the time I'm usually utilizing a cane."
He retired from the Navy in 1993, 30 percent service connected disabled. This 30 percent service connected disability means the VA calculates his total disabilities to the 30 percent level, meaning he receives $389 every month as a single man. "That rating is placed how much that person is losing based on full time employment. It's decent money to live on. It's all tax exempt. It's supposed to make up for them not able to work a full time job. But it's not enough where you're gonna be able to retire and, you know, live wealthy, but you can support yourself on that," Missouri Veterans Commission supervisor Eugene O'Loughlin said.
Avery was last employed as a nuclear security officer in California in 2009. "I was taking three to four days off a week just to be able to recover from the impact of that job on my disabilities. The end result was I finally couldn't do the job any more."
He then moved from California to Missouri to stay with family and friends. He has also been married twice and divorced twice. "Right now I'm homeless. I'm counting on family members to put me up because the financial obligations of day-to-day life are too much. I don't live extravagantly, I just can't afford to live day-to-day if certain things pop up."
"I'm still in a position where I'm fighting to live a normal life. I can't do stairs, I can't stand for long lengths of time, I can't walk for long periods of time. I can't sit for long periods of time. I need devices to help me sleep, devices to help me breathe."
Now Avery is 90 percent service connected disabled, meaning he receives $1,661 every month. This 90 percent comes from a combined rating of limited motion of arm at 40 percent, tinnitus at ten percent, chronic bronchitis at 30 percent, neurosis at 30 percent, and intervertebral disc syndrome at 40 percent." When I tell people that I'm a 90 percent service connected disabled vet, they look at me like you're doing just fine and healthy."
He filed for 100 percent service connected disability, also called individual unemployability, in July 2011, meaning he would receive $2,769 every month. But he has yet to hear anything. "I understand that there's an increased workload. But when you have doctors notifications from the VA stating that you are unemployable, it shouldn't take 18 months to be able to sign that paper work and get that resolved."
For the time he has waited, he could be looking at more than $18,000. ‘That check sitting in my account drawing interest would be making money but right now it's sitting in the government's account making them money," Avery said.
"If he's 90 percent service connected he'd still be receiving the $1,661 each month. Then when they VA makes the determination to grant IU it automatically raises to the $2,769 rate and they give him a retroactive paycheck back to the first day he requested it. So if it's been 18 months of processing time, about $18, 000 will come," O'Loughlin said.
Avery works with the Missouri Veterans Commission and Disabled American Veterans to help with the benefits process. The commission works as a liaison between the veteran and the VA.
To file a claim, it takes a month for the VA to receive all of the documents and send them where they need to go, three to four months in predetermination, three to four months of rating time, and one month of final processing time. This totals about eight to ten months and this is for a standard claim. "It is pretty much a first come first serve basis when they receive the letter or the claim it gets date stamped. Every page of it gets date stamped. And that's the order that they work it in. I mean it's as simple as that. He's not being pushed to the side."
However, the individual unemployability Avery has applied for takes longer. "We're seeing a lot of claims for IU taking any where from 18 to 24 months just because they're complex. There are times where I don't wanna say it gets lost in the cracks, but, you know, they're gonna go through all of the medical records, all of the service connections right now to find out what the severity of his disabilities are now."
But O'Loughlin admitted 18 months of waiting is too long. "It's kind of extreme. The VA does have a one-year red flag time period so his file would be red flagged at this point. But it is a bit beyond what it should take."
O'Loughlin said the process is so meticulous because the veteran could have been unable to work in the past, but if their disability improved, allowing them to work, the VA will make sure they work. "The VA would much rather send them through vocational rehab or educational benefits to retrain them to do another job so that they can actually participate and contribute to society, as opposed to, I don't want to say living off society, but in a way that is what we're trying to do."
O'Loughlin said six years ago, the St. Louis Regional office processed about 6,000 claims. Now there are more than 11,000 claims pending with 250 employees working them. "I know the simple solution is then well hire more people. But that's not a simple solution because it takes between 3 to 5 years to be proficient in the laws concerning the disabilities regarding veterans. So you're actually cutting down on the process when you're hiring new people so it."
O'Loughlin said the system is outdated. "The Lincoln administration designed this to handle a thousand claims a month. Now it's 11 times that. The system needs to be reworked a bit."
However, O'Loughlin said in 2006, veterans in Missouri received $600 million in compensation and pension benefits. Now Missouri veterans receive $1.2 billion. "That's an incredible pat on the back for the VA, service officers and veterans."
But O'Loughlin said 90 percent of the veterans he works with still need more money.
O'Loughlin began his career at the Missouri Veterans Commission six years ago. Since then, he said his business has tripled. "We're getting a lot from Iraq and Afghanistan but also getting a lot from post-Vietnam and pre-Persian Gulf War, and a fair number of Vietnam veterans. I can't even say that the majority of the clients that we have coming in are young, middles aged or old I mean because we have the whole gauntlet of them."
O'Loughlin said he sometimes even sees veterans claiming benefits they do not deserve, benefits they want to claim because they do not want to work any more. "I see people that are trying to file for a claim that to me appears to have no validity whatsoever. But I represent the veteran so its my job much like a lawyer put together the best case I can and submit it to the VA and let the VA decide. Keep in mind, they're part of that 11,000 claims that are being processed with the VA right now and they're slowing down the system."
"It's an overwhelming sensation of frustration to the point where most people would just quit and I think honestly that that's what's structured for them to do. That's why you see such a large population of homeless veterans. That's why you see such a large suicide rate in veterans," Avery said.
Avery has contacted politicians. "Come to find out from my veterans rep that the politician sends a note back to the veterans rep who then contacts the VA and because they're now basically a whistle blower, their file goes to the bottom...by contacting politicians to get assistance, you actually delay your benefits."
Avery has also tried contacting the VA itself. "Those two phone calls last week resulted in a ‘We're too busy. Thank you for calling. Call again another time.' It was just an automated program."
O'Loughlin said he knows veterans are on hold at the VA for at least 45 minutes. "Fifty percent of my job is answering phone calls as to why this taking so long. But I'm proud of what VA is doing. What they have is a runaway freight train and they're trying to keep the reigns on it pretty good. And I think they're doing all right."
But at this point, Avery is tired.
"At what point do you say, ‘You know what? Here's our veterans. Here's the face of our veterans. Here's the guy that's speaking up and this is everybody wants to...this is the time for [people to say you know what we heard his story," Avery said. "There needs to be an outcry from the people."
For more information on veterans' benefits, visit the VA's website.