Friday, February 13, 2009

Guest Opinion: Obama and Shinseki should let vets get benefits

Guest Opinion: Obama and Shinseki should let vets get benefits

President-elect Barack Obama should make it easier for disabled veterans to get their benefits.

The Department of Veterans Affairs routinely delays disability claims by wounded soldiers for months and years, often shunting them into poverty and homelessness. Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, Barack Obama's pick for Veterans Affairs Secretary, should change this policy.

Former Lance Cpl. Bob O'Daniel's story is far too common. The proud Navajo has been fighting for more than 17 years to receive the veteran's benefits he earned.

During the 1991 Gulf War, O'Daniel worked on board the USS Nassau, which was stationed in the Persian Gulf. Even before he came home, O'Daniel knew something wasn't right. He was always tired, and he couldn't see or sleep properly. He experienced sexual dysfunction and "just a lot of things that a young man shouldn't have," he told me.

O'Daniel suffers from Gulf War Syndrome. This comes with a range of symptoms including - but not limited to - rashes, stomach distress, brain lesions, fatigue, severely swollen muscles and memory loss.

"Memories are what all people cherish," he said. "Good times, bad times - whatever. But I was missing a lot of those things."

Pentagon doctors now believe Gulf War Syndrome affects more than 175,000 veterans of the 1991 conflict. A blue-ribbon government report released in November said the condition is most likely due to exposure to toxic pesticides and pills that were given to soldiers to protect them against nerve gas.

Subsisting on charity
But even though O'Daniel's VA doctors tell him he has the syndrome, bureaucrats at the Department of Veterans Affairs refuse to grant him the benefits he earned in combat. O'Daniel lives in his wife's parents' home in North Carolina, subsisting off their charity with his wife and two children while they wait for the VA to begin paying his claim.

Across the country, more than 600,000 wounded veterans find themselves in the same position, twisting in the wind as they wait for the government to keep its promise to care for them.

Many descend into poverty during the months and years of waiting.

Others are simply unable to outlast the bureaucracy. In the six months leading up to March 31 of last year, 1,500 veterans died while they waited for the VA's response.

Trust the vets
There is a better way to handle military disability claims: Trust the vets.

In her exhaustive study of the long-term costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Linda Bilmes, who teaches management, budgeting and public finance at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, notes that almost all veterans tell the truth in their disability claims, with the VA ultimately approving nearly 90 percent of them. Given that reality, Bilmes suggests scrapping the lengthy process described above and replacing it with "something closer to the way the IRS deals with tax returns." Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand all use similar systems to compensate their injured veterans.

Obama and Shinseki should streamline the benefits process. Our disabled vets have waited too long already.

Aaron Glantz, a Rosalynn Carter for Mental Health Journalism fellow at the Carter Center, is the author of "The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans" (University of California Press). Guest Opinion: Obama and Shinseki should let vets get benefits

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