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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 30, 2008
On the ballot
By Philippa Stasiuk
On Nov. 4, New Yorkers will vote on a proposed change to the state constitution. The amendment would allow any disabled veteran who is certified by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs to get extra points on Civil Service exams, boosting chances of getting a government job. Currently, only vets receiving disability payments specifically from the Department of Veterans Affairs can get the points.
While the amendment does not address larger issues surrounding veteran disability coverage, it does simplify one aspect of post-service life and there has been no organized opposition to the proposition.
Felix Ortiz, the Democratic assemblyman from Brooklyn who sponsored the measure, confirmed its smooth passage to the ballot. “Everything I’ve been getting about the bill is very positive,” he said. “I think we sometimes give wonderful parades to veteran men and women but we don’t give them the credit they deserve. I hope people will come out and vote.”
There are scores of reasons why a veteran certified as disabled by the VA may not be getting disability payments.
Jere Beery, an injured vet and an advocate for Veterans for Veteran Connections, explained that a veteran might be receiving disability pay from the military branch in which he or she served instead of from the VA. “All vets disabled in the line of duty are given the option of waiving retirement pay in favor of VA disability compensations,” he said. “If it’s a higher award, that’s the way they want to go. The amount depends on his or her rank and how many years the soldier has been in service.”
William Kraus, executive deputy director of the New York VA offers another variation. “There are some places where soldiers get part of their disability from the military and part from the Veterans Affairs.” Under the current New York constitution, these veterans are not eligible for the Civil Service credit because they are not getting all of their disability from the VA.
If voters pass the amendment to Article 5, Section 6, New York would be aligned with the federal government, which does not differentiate credit eligibility for disabled vets between those who are receiving disability payments from the Department of Defense and those who are getting disability from Veterans Affairs.
But the amendment will apply to hundreds of thousands of veterans who are receiving minimal disability benefits or no benefits at all. Nationwide in 2007, only 69 percent of veterans from the current war in Iraq who filed disability claims received service-connected disability compensation.
For many soldiers, duty-related injuries show up after they are discharged; proving that the injuries are service related is challenging. This is particularly true for vets who do not know how to navigate such a large government system.
Beery described the VA’s disability compensation as being like Social Security. “They’ll turn you down the first time no matter what,” he said. “Sometimes you have to put in a claim two or three times before they have enough evidence, enough paperwork. It’s a bureaucracy in and of itself.”
For a soldier who chooses to appeal the VA’s claim denial, he or she must submit it again and wait. By the VA’s own tally, there are more than 504,000 claims from injured war veterans waiting to receive disability.
Theodore Roybal, a disabled Vietnam veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, said the flashbacks, anxiety, and anger didn’t surface until years after he served in the 173rd Airborne, jumping behind enemy lines in Vietnam as part of Operation Junction City on March 9, 1967.
“Veterans Affairs doesn’t tell you what you’re entitled to,” he said. “You have to find it out by word of mouth…The biggest thing that goes through your mind is the government won’t help you.”
The first time he applied, Roybal said, he was given 30 percent; he appealed and got 70 percent; he appealed again and got 100 percent and was classified as unemployable.
The average appeal time is now almost two years. During the wait, not only can the veterans’ medical conditions get worse, but, if the state’s constitution isn’t amended, vets can’t get the benefit of Civil Service credit when applying for a state job while waiting for an answer.
Another reason veterans are not receiving disability from the VA has to do with the model used by VA doctors for figuring out compensation. It was created in 1945 and, although numerous commissions have questioned whether it adequately reflects medical and technological advances, doctors still use it to determine how injured a soldier is, and therefore how much money he or she will receive.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is one injury that highlights the discrepancies in the VA’s diagnosing system. Of the vets returning from the current war in Iraq, 20 percent are diagnosed with PTSD and between 1999 and 2004, the number of vets diagnosed with the condition grew 79.5 percent to 215,871, according to the VA.
There is no nationalized method for diagnosing PTSD, so it is up to individual doctors to classify veterans by assigning them a percentage by which they are believed to be disabled. Although national disability payments by the VA grew from $1.7 billion to $4.3 billion for the same five-year period, states where soldiers were categorized more frequently as having 100 percent disability from PTSD received significantly higher payments than states where doctors gave lower percentages of soldier disability.
John DePersis, the legislative chairman of the American Legion in New York, has yet another reason for vets’ not receiving disability. “An awful lot of vets end up with no money at all because they have to be reviewed again each year,” he said. “Disability doesn’t go on forever, unless you have a major injury.” DePersis added that the amendment would help vets who meet the requirement for disability but have stopped receiving funding.