Stephen Whitehead is National Commander for Disabled American Veterans.
On October 5, 2014, the President, bipartisan members of Congress, veteran leaders and hundreds of veterans dedicated the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in Washington, D.C. Within eyeshot of the U.S. Capitol, the President and other speakers talked about the continuing cost of war for those who returned with visible and invisible injuries, most permanently changed, and our sacred obligations to them.
But now, just five years after establishing this national monument symbolizing the importance of caring for those who served, we find there are still severely disabled veterans who are being forgotten—or worse, ignored—by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In June, DAV (Disabled American Veterans) hailed the enactment of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veteran Act, which made veterans who served in waters offshore of Vietnam eligible for health care benefits for conditions linked to Agent Orange exposure. Within days, however, the VA issued a blanket stay on all Blue Water Navy claims until January 1, 2020, further delaying decisions on these claims and effectively robbing veterans of this long-awaited victory. A federal appeals court ruling earlier this year (Procopio v. Wilkie) had ordered VA to begin granting Agent Orange-related benefits to Blue Water Navy veterans who served within 12 nautical miles of Vietnam, but as a result of VA Secretary Robert Wilkie’s directive, those veterans are now being forced unnecessarily to continue waiting.
These veterans have already spent decades waiting for recognition that they too were exposed to Agent Orange and suffered negative health consequences as a result. Many of them are gravely ill, and some will not survive until next year to finally gain access to the life-changing health care and benefits they have earned.
Bobby Daniels, for example, is an 85-year old veteran who served aboard the USS Lexington off the coast of Vietnam. Last year, he was diagnosed with incurable, terminal prostate cancer—a disease known to be linked to Agent Orange exposure. He and his wife, Judy, were forced to take out a second mortgage to help pay for his medical expenses. Today, they continue to wait for VA to review and decide his claims, not knowing if or when they might get a decision. And Bobby, who may not make it to the new year, remains fearful and angry that Judy may not receive the survivor benefits she would be entitled to as a result of his Agent Orange-related conditions.
The VA also continues to delay expansion of its Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers to veterans severely injured prior to 9/11, despite Congress’ mandate to do so as part of the VA MISSION Act signed into law last year. As of October 1, the VA has missed its deadline to certify a new information technology system required to expand the program and open enrollment to older generations of veterans. They have fumbled implementation of a new IT system for several years now, expending millions in taxpayer dollars in the process. Now VA says the certification will not happen until later in 2020.
Meanwhile, seriously injured veterans of WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War continue to age, and their service-connected disabilities continue to worsen and complicate their health. The family caregivers who have dedicated decades of their lives to care for their loved ones are also growing older and their caregiving duties are becoming more strenuous. In many cases, they have given up their own career and educational pursuits to take on the caregiver role, neglecting their own physical and mental wellbeing and paying out-of-pocket for support services that post-9/11 veteran caregivers receive for free through the VA.
Pat Dempsey serves as caregiver for her husband, Ray, an Army veteran who suffered a spinal cord injury while serving in Vietnam. On several occasions, Pat has left her husband home alone for short periods to run errands and returned to find him on the floor, having slipped out of his wheelchair, unable to get up. She’s had little help and little respite over the years, and now, she says she has little hope of ever getting the help they need from the VA.
The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial is a concrete reminder of the promises we made to the nation’s veterans. You can run your hands across the words etched into the granite walls and reflect on the deep physical and emotional scars left on our service men and women. But the memorial also serves as our touchstone to measure whether we are truly fulfilling those promises to all who served.
Among the most powerful words inscribed on the granite walls of the memorial are those of George Washington, who spoke about, “… the obligations this country is under, to that meritorious class of veteran… who have shed their blood or lost their limbs in the service of their country.”
To ensure our nation is fully meeting its obligations, the President should immediately direct Secretary Wilkie to remove the stay and start processing Blue Water Navy claims now, and instruct VA to prioritize expansion of VA’s caregiver program and devote the support and resources required to begin enrollment for older generations of veterans as soon as possible.
The memorial makes clear to us that caring for disabled veterans is not a one-time deal. They have sustained life-changing injuries and illnesses in the line of duty, and it is the responsibility of this nation to prioritize their long-term wellbeing. It also offers us this simple truth: if you are not speaking up on behalf of veterans when our government is failing to meet its sacred obligations, you are simply not doing your part to honor their service and sacrifice.
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