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by Shad Meshad, National Veterans Foundation Founder & President
As someone who has been diagnosing and treating Post-Traumatic Stress (PTSD) for more than 30 years, I applaud VA for their recent decision to make it easier for veterans to receive PTSD disability benefits.
For years, Vets have been in the difficult position of having to prove the traumatic incident that was the genesis of their PTSD. You’d think this would be easy, but it was a rule that discouraged and prevented many Veterans from seeking or receiving the benefits that they needed and deserved.
One of the issues was record keeping. Many battlefield incidents are not properly documented, especially when they involve troops whose military jobs are not technically combat related. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, a road-side bomb, a sniper or an RPG can come at any time, from almost anywhere and there are service members who aren’t infantry who are finding them themselves in combat. This includes troops who witness the horrors of war in military hospitals, at checkpoints, and those that go in and clean up the bodies after a bomb blast or firefight.
Compounding this problem has been the antiquated record keeping systems at Department of Defense and VA. Most records are still not computerized, and those that are stored electronically are not shared between the two agencies. So veterans, already suffering from debilitating PTSD, were forced to chase down their military documents, often one a time, to submit to VA. And too often those paper documents were lost in the system.
This new guideline, which makes a PTSD disability rating available to a veteran who served in a combat zone, without making him or her document the incident that caused their PTSD, is a great step forward by VA in getting men and women who have served the benefits and the treatment they have earned. The National Veterans Foundation has received hundreds of calls from veterans who were declined for PTSD disability benefits or gave up in frustration, and we are now calling these men and women with the good news, encouraging them to reapply for their benefits.
There is still more progress to be made. VA continues to require that PTSD diagnoses be made by a VA mental health professional, which can be one more obstacle to a veteran receiving the proper diagnosis. Many veteran advocates argue that VA doctors are pressured to limit the number of PTSD diagnoses. Some veterans are also more hesitant to see a government doctor, especially former soldiers who have had negative experiences with the military system, and don’t trust these institutions. There are many qualified civilian physicians who specialize in treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder who are perfectly capable of diagnosing the condition, and those diagnoses should be honored by VA.
For information veterans can call the National Veterans Foundation Lifeline for Vets™ at 888-777-4443 or visit our website at www.nvf.org.
Floyd G. “Shad” Meshad is the Founder and President of the National Veterans Foundation and an Army veteran. The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mr. Meshad and do not necessarily reflect those of the USO.
From the desk of John Hanson:
For more than a generation, combat veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often found themselves arguing with the Department of Veterans Affairs about the existence of their very real disability. It was often a case of both sides having the facts right, but arguing with an enormous bureaucracy doesn’t always go well.
The VA is mandated to rate disabilities and compensate veterans for them. Sometimes it’s easy – a veteran shows up with a missing limb and a Purple Heart, the case is pretty easy to make. However, some wounds are not so obvious.
For decades, veterans have had difficulty connecting the dots between exposure to a combat trauma and their disabilities. This is not an example of a standoff between a deserving claimant and hide-bound government workers. Sometimes VA just gets it wrong, but much of the time there’s a problem with a veterans military records.
There have been efforts in the past to make the connection easier. For example, the receipt of a Purple Heart or a valor ribbon or a combat action badge and its equivalents help to make the case between exposure to combat and trauma.
But, the older the case, the harder it is to justify. If a veteran’s service didn’t include direct combat, but the horror of its aftermath, proving a claim for PTSD can be a challenge. At times, it seems that having to deal with the paperwork might drive people closer to the brink than the actual stressors they were exposed to. That caused delays — sometimes decades-long delays. For PTSD and traumatic brain injury, justice delayed really can be justice denied.
It is not uncommon for these veterans to lose their jobs or their families. They might resort to self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Those results might well have been different if the process were easier.
The military has attempted to make it easier for these “invisible” injuries to be documented. Interviews with troops in the field are intended to document exposure to combat, combat trauma and explosions. Sometimes those report were matched with troops’ medical records. Sometimes they weren’t. To complicate things further, troops were not always candid with their interviewers, because they didn’t want to risk being separated from their comrades.
The VA’s New Approach
The government’s new rules for PTSD should make the claims process as simple and straightforward as it can be. If your doctor verifies your symptoms and your records show you were in the war, the claim will likely be allowed. That’s the way it should be.
I know there are critics who will say that some veterans will attempt to scam the system. Maybe, but those cases are almost always found out. The greater danger is that the system stays the way it is – putting an unreasonable burden on veterans to prove their case and hope for the best.
We owe troops more than their support while they’re in uniform. We have to recognize that sometimes the things we ask them to do can harm them in ways they cannot imagine. And we need to make sure they are able to recover and reintegrate after they leave the military. It’s what a great nation does.
For more information, please visit www.va.gov or call the VA’s toll free benefits number at 1-800-827-1000.