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Collecting benefits is a losing battle for some veterans

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FORT EDWARD -- Charles Cooley, Vietnam veteran, shuffled out of his bedroom with an oxygen hose looped around his nose like a bridle and fell into a chair at the dining room table.

"Ungh," he gasped. "I fell out of bed again last night."

"Did you?" said his wife, Dolores. "Jesus Lord."

Day after day, the Cooleys sit around in their doublewide trailer in the Drifting Ridge subdivision, watching TV and listening to the cries of their four cockatiels.

They do not get out much. Charles can’t even sit outside, because the breeze would chill his arms and legs.

"Poor circulation," he coughed. "Most of the time, my feet are ice cold."

But when he’s trying to sleep, he grows hot.

"Half my body’s sweating, the other half is freezing," he said.

He often falls out of bed.

In 2005, after suffering a heart attack, Charles retired from his job as a pipefitter and he and Dolores sold their house on Long Island.

They put $84,000 in an individual retirement account and bought the lot and the trailer in Drifting Ridge. They moved in with the expectation they could live on their Social Security checks and Charles’ compensation payments from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.

Because he was suffering from diabetes and other conditions linked to Agent Orange exposure, Cooley was receiving about $600 a month in compensation payments.

The Cooleys expected the payments to increase as Charles’ condition got worse. Instead, last spring, the VA cut his payments to zero.

Dolores had already been forced to dip into their retirement account for some unexpected bills but, since the checks stopped, they’ve fallen short on living expenses and had to make withdrawals every month. The account is down to about $5,000 now and will run out in a few months.

They don’t qualify for food stamps or other welfare, Dolores said. Soon, they will be broke.

Officials whose job it is to help get veterans federal benefits expressed sympathy for the Cooleys.

"He’s not in good health. He’s a physical wreck," said Sam Hall, the veterans service officer in Washington County who has been handling Charles’ claims. "My heart goes out to the Cooleys."

But neither Hall nor other officials familiar with the Cooleys’ situation expressed optimism the VA would reverse its decision.

The paperwork from the VA revoking Cooley’s payments called his compensation an error.

"They say, ‘We’re correcting our error.’ No, you’re not. You’re screwing the veteran, that’s what you’re doing," Dolores said. "We’re not looking for a handout. The government owes it to him for all his illnesses."

Nationwide, millions of veterans live with disabilities from their service. Many have found that getting compensation from the VA can take longer than their tours of duty and be as stressful as combat.

Killing them softly

John Rossie is a Vietnam veteran from Colorado who has worked as a volunteer with his county veterans service office. In 2005, he started advocating through a Yahoo discussion board for blue water veterans — the sailors like Charles Cooley who served on ocean-going ships during the Vietnam War.

In 2002, the VA changed the way it interpreted the Agent Orange Act, excluding blue water veterans.

Rossie formed an alliance with another advocate, Susan Belanger of Wilton, who, in the course of working on a relative’s compensation case, had filled multiple CDs with information on blue water veterans.

Rossie is now executive director and Belanger director of special projects for the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association, giving advice to blue water veterans and lobbying for legislation that recognizes and compensates their suffering from Agent Orange exposure.

"You never had a harder fight overseas than when you come back and deal with the VA," Rossie said. "I consider them adversaries. Every claim, I put it in expecting a fight."

Veterans can file claims themselves, but the paperwork is complex. The initial application form for benefits is 23 pages long.

The appeals process, which the Cooleys are engaged in now, takes an average of four years. While waiting, some veterans die.

"It’s called, ‘Deny, deny, till we all die,’" Belanger said. "This is part of the price tag of war. They’ve kicked these veterans to the curb one too many times. I’ve had guys tell me, ‘I’m dying, but I’m doing it for the next crew.’"

"The VA will look for any crack they can wiggle themselves into that can make things go wrong," Rossie said. "Vets throw up their hands and say, ‘I’m not going to deal with this.’ One school of thought says that’s intentional."

A recent federal court decision found that delays by the VA in handling compensation claims violate veterans’ due process rights to receive care and benefits guaranteed by law. (See full text of decision online)

"For veterans and their families, such delays cause unnecessary grief and privation," reads the May 10 opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit.

That case was brought by two nonprofit groups over treatment of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. The court’s ruling also mentions that, of about 23 million veterans in the U.S., roughly a third (8 million) are enrolled for health care with the VA, and about 3 million of those receive disability benefits.

The court wrote: "The VA’s unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough; no more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligations."

Every case is different

Veterans service officers work for counties or states and are often certified through service agencies such as the American Legion. They do not work for the VA but are experts in the VA’s procedures. They help veterans file federal claims.

Often, veterans service officers are veterans themselves. Sam Hall, the Washington County veterans service officer, served with the National Guard for more than 30 years.

Harry Candee, who works in Warren County as a veterans service officer for the state, served in the Army for 20 years, retiring in 1986.

They defend the VA.

"The VA most times bends over backwards to help the veteran," Candee said.

"The individuals that are working down at the VA do not get up in the morning and say, ‘How can I screw a veteran?’" Hall said. "If there is a little bit of wiggle room, the VA will give the veteran a break."

William Kraus, acting director of the state Division of Veterans Affairs, had nothing bad to say about the VA, even when asked about delays that drag on for years and about cases in which benefits are cut off in contradiction of the VA’s own policies.

"These are different cases, different situations. Every case is unique, every case is so unique," Kraus said.

Laurie Tranter, a spokeswoman with the VA’s public affairs office in Washington, D.C., said the VA could not answer questions about the case of a specific veteran, such as Charles Cooley, without a waiver from the veteran.

Rossie, director of the blue water veterans group, said the VA uses the defense that each claim is unique to justify its own inconsistency.

"They claim every case is so individual and unique that VA law allows them at 3 o’clock to rule A and at 4 o’clock to rule B," he said.

He used an example he was familiar with of a Navy ship that saw action in Vietnam.

One of the regional offices granted some members of the crew compensation for herbicide exposure based on evidence they had been at the mouth of a river, because sailors who can show they served on Vietnam’s inland waterways, as opposed to its coastal areas, can qualify for Agent Orange benefits, Rossie said.

"Other guys in the same crew can’t get benefits for the life of them — literally, probably," he said.

The VA’s policies are administered through 57 regional offices, and they’re all supposed to follow the same rulebook, according to Rossie.

"But, in fact, there are 57 separate kingdoms," he said.

If you’re a veteran, however, calling the VA unfair does nothing for your claim.

"You just gotta smile and walk away," Rossie said. "It’s aggravating, that’s a good word for it. It is enough to have guys say, ‘The hell with this. It’s not worth the fight.’"

Tomorrow: Read about the science involved in the fight over Agent Orange benefits.


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