Dates To Remember:
Disabled vets miss out on assistance
'These are not handouts; these are earned benefits,' an advocate points out
By ALISON YOUNG and CHRIS ADAMS
Knight Ridder Newspapers
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - Frostbite and gangrene still ravage Joseph Hallemann's legs nearly 60 years after he was an Army scout wading through an icy French harbor in World War II.
Yet for decades, Hallemann never received compensation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for the injuries he suffered in service to his country.
It wasn't until the State of Missouri noticed how few of its veterans were getting federal disability benefits and set up a program to find them that Hallemann learned he was eligible.
"I think it's a dang disgrace on the country," said Missouri Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell. "We've asked men and women to serve and pay a horrible price, and then to abandon them when they come home. These are not handouts; these are earned benefits."
Despite Abraham Lincoln's admonition for the country "to care for him who shall have borne the battle," hundreds of thousands of vets nationwide potentially are missing out on disability payments from the VA - and the agency's efforts to find them have fallen far short.
A Knight Ridder analysis of the VA's own survey data puts the number of those veterans at about 572,000. If all of them were to secure monthly benefits, they could be collecting $4.5 billion a year, based on current average payments.
Funding such a sizable liability wouldn't be easy, of course, during this time of high deficits, competing national priorities and reconstruction of Iraq. But advocates for veterans say the nation made promises it's obligated to keep.
While the VA has an ambitious program to enroll current soldiers as they prepare for discharge, officials with state and nonprofit veterans agencies say the federal government does little to find vets who left the military years or decades ago.
Linda Boone, the executive director of National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, said VA officials expect vets to contact them if they want benefits. "They don't do the outreach," she said.
Mike McLendon, the VA's deputy assistant secretary for policy, said the agency has come a "long, long way" in reaching out to veterans. He said he suspects that many veterans who may be eligible for disability benefits have simply chosen not to apply.
"At the end of the day, we have to recognize that the VA cannot order people to file a claim," McLendon said.
With no comprehensive federal outreach program, many state veterans departments have set out to find these missing veterans. They're motivated in part by the big differences in the percentage of each state's veterans who receive federal disability benefits, which ranges from 16 percent to 6 percent.
Joseph Hallemann recalls vividly the relentless cold that enveloped him during the war - from his landing at Le Havre in France in 1945 to sleeping in snowbanks. "I remember standing one night in a manure pile. That's how you would get your feet warm," said Hallemann, who recalls being paid $30 a month by the Army. He received a Combat Infantryman Badge and a Bronze Star for heroism.
Young Pfc. Hallemann's legs were badly damaged by the cold. Six decades later, they're purple, black and brown, and he has significant nerve damage.
"I can't feel anything," said Hallemann, 78, who walks with great difficulty.
In 1947, Hallemann applied to the VA for compensation, but the government - using a fill-in-the-blank form letter that he's kept all these years - rejected his claim. Hallemann dropped the matter until July 2002, when he went to a Missouri Veterans Commission gathering in his hometown of Florissant, about 20 miles northwest of St. Louis.
Missouri officials encouraged Hallemann to reapply and helped him document his case. He now has a 100 percent disability rating, which pays him more than $2,200 a month.
Last year, Missouri helped Vietnam veteran Arthur Griffin get his monthly disability check. "It means we can pay our electric bill," said the 57-year-old forklift mechanic. His family has been scraping by since his wife, Linda, quit her job to care for her elderly parents.
Four years ago, doctors diagnosed Griffin, of Republic, Mo., with Type II diabetes and told him that he'll likely develop crippling problems in his hands and feet.
Because he did two tours in Vietnam, the VA presumed that Griffin's diabetes was caused by exposure to Agent Orange, a potent herbicide. Griffin now has a 20 percent disability rating. He receives $205 a month, as well as medical care and medications for his condition.
"This is a godsend," said his wife. "It just really helps to know that if something happens, he'll be taken care of."
Griffin said he was reluctant to apply. "I looked at it as welfare, and it's not," he said. "They're finally keeping their end of the bargain. I hadn't thought of it that way."
Calling them "veterans supermarkets," Missouri has held about 20 such outreach events across the state in the past two years.
"When we do a supermarket, we may have 250 vets file 150 claims," said Ron Taylor, the executive director of the Missouri Veterans Commission, during an event in Jefferson City in April. "Many of them may have filed a claim a number of years ago, been denied and didn't follow up." Others are primarily interested in gaining access to VA medical care, which is often contingent on having a disability connected to military service.
Taylor and Maxwell, a Democrat, credit the program with helping to add 4,000 Missouri vets to federal disability rolls.
The disabilities that the government pays for are wide ranging: from the loss of an arm or leg while in combat to more subtle damage, such as hearing loss from working near heavy artillery. The VA also covers arthritis from old injuries and illnesses from chemical exposure.
The VA's rigorous application process, which can take months and sometimes years to complete, requires documentation of the veterans' medical conditions and military records or other proof to show the disabilities resulted from service. Compensation checks range from $106 to $2,239 a month. Of the country's 25 million living veterans, 2.5 million receive about $20 billion in disability compensation payments each year.
The 572,000 uncompensated veterans counted in Knight Ridder's analysis are those who say they have disabilities that they believe are connected to their military service but they've never applied for benefits. It's a tally derived from a 2001 VA survey of 20,000 veterans nationwide.
It's impossible to say how many of the 572,000 would have the documentation needed to qualify. The VA notes that among veterans in the survey who thought they should be getting benefits and had applied, more than one-third were turned down.
The large number of missing veterans suggests that the VA isn't doing enough to connect veterans to the benefits they've earned, said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J.
In 2000, he introduced the Veterans Right to Know Act, which called for more outreach and for the VA to prepare a yearly plan for outreach activities. While some language from the bill made it into law, the requirement for an annual outreach plan has gone nowhere.
Pascrell called the VA's lackluster outreach effort "unconscionable."
VA officials strongly disagree. But they can provide little data to demonstrate the agency is being effective, even though they've been working to do so since last year in response to questions from Congress.
The outreach programs that VA officials tout most are directed only at soldiers on active duty. Since 1990, the VA has offered intensive benefits seminars to soldiers nearing discharge and in 1998 began helping them apply. About 30,000 soldiers filed disability claims through this outreach program last year - about a quarter of new claims.
The VA's efforts for older veterans are more modest. VA officials said they contact them through pamphlets, the Internet, press releases and through partnerships with local officials.
Most direct contact is done by state and county veterans agencies and nonprofit veterans groups. In some parts of the country, these groups are adequately staffed and aggressive in their pursuit of veterans. In others, they're not.
Ray Boland, a former president of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs, said there needs to be a consistent approach. The goal should be "to provide equal services to all veterans wherever they live," said Boland, a retired Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs official.
The differences in state services help explain the wide disparities.
At the high end are states such as Alaska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, where 12 percent to 16 percent of veterans receive disability compensation payments. At the low end are Illinois, Iowa, Connecticut and Michigan, where 6 percent or 7 percent of veterans get compensation. The national average is 9.9 percent.
Experts say other things affect the differences. Economic and demographic factors likely play roles. States with large military bases, for example, may rank higher because career military personnel retire nearby and are more likely to have service-related disabilities.
Nonetheless, the differences have provoked concern.
Rep. Lane Evans of Illinois, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said he was "completely surprised" by the disparities. He said the differences deserve congressional scrutiny.
"Is there any reason to believe twice as many veterans in Puerto Rico and Maine than Illinois should qualify?" asked Evans. "We are going to be looking into it."
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who chairs the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said he hasn't heard many complaints about disabled veterans not getting their due. "And this is a group that is well represented," he said.
To state directors, it's obvious more needs to be done. Oklahoma has long had one of the highest percentage of veterans receiving federal disability benefits. The key, state officials say, is sending well-trained claims preparers to neighborhoods rather than forcing veterans to find them.
"We make sure we get the service to where the veterans are," said Phillip Driskill, the department's executive director.
Even with nearly 13 percent of Oklahoma's 360,000 veterans receiving disability checks, Driskill thinks there are thousands more who deserve payments but aren't getting them.
Such projections from a state near the top of the list make states near the bottom look potentially worse.
Pennsylvania, for instance, has 1.2 million veterans - but fewer than 8 percent are receiving compensation for disabilities. Jim Davison, the state's deputy director for veterans affairs, said too few resources and a lack of aggressive outreach by state and local nonprofit veterans groups may help explain the disparity.
Tom Johnson, California's new secretary of veterans affairs, asked his staff to explore outreach programs after learning his state ranked just below the national average.
"We're going to put our shoulder to the wheel and see how we can make improvements," he said.