OTTUMWA — Veterans are not being treated with the dignity and respect they deserve, said Congressman Dave Loebsack, meaning more resources are needed to enact a major shift in what happens when a soldier returns from war.
Loebsack, D-Iowa City, sat down with local veterans Monday afternoon at Hotel Ottumwa to discuss ongoing problems, including backlogged claims and poor access to jobs and mental health services for returning veterans.
Wapello County Veterans Affairs director Marty Cremer said his concern lies in Loebsack’s keyword: “resources.”
“Is it money? Is it manpower?” he asked. “Right now people in my position can look at the claim and see whose desk it’s sitting on and the process goes to this desk, then another, then on to the next. How many sets of eyes have to see each claim before someone makes a decision on it? The more desks we put in the line, it adds to the time of the claim.”
Loebsack said the process needs to be streamlined.
“Just because there are more resources going in doesn’t mean there should be more desks,” he said.
Jefferson County VA Commission director Ray Chambers said the majority of claims filed in his county are processed within six months to a year. Today, “eBenefits” allows veterans to watch the status of their claim. For more information, go to www.ebenefits.va.gov.
Cremer encourages all veterans to take advantage of eBenefits and become active in watching the status of their claim.
“Don’t just wait for a letter to come in the mail,” Cremer said. “Stay on top of it. I myself run the gamut with the length of claims. A couple I started in May last year still haven’t come through, but I had one come through today that took 17 days.”
That’s evidence of the “unevenness” of the process, Loebsack said.
But for veteran Kenney Matthew Sr., finding a job was his biggest obstacle after returning from the Vietnam War, as he was unable to get a position with the Ottumwa Fire Department.
“I was over-trained,” Matthew said. “They should’ve hired me anyway, but they didn’t. This city has a problem hiring veterans. I feel veterans are getting a dirty deal, especially the ones who are living out in tents, in cardboard shacks ... around the county that have good job skills that need to be brought in so they can be utilized for everyone’s benefit. What about an orientation class before they get out of the service, to know what services they’ll have available for them?”
Loebsack said those programs now exist for today’s returning soldiers — but it’s often condensed into a short time frame.
Ottumwa Mayor Frank Flanders said a discussion needs to happen within the City Council to see what kind of programs could be made available to veterans.
“If nothing else, we at least need to have a system where we give veterans hiring preferences,” Flanders said.
Jarrod Diers, a recent Army veteran, said there are not enough physicians for returning veterans.
“What will happen when the war’s over?” he said. “We’re going to have a surge of soldiers. What’s going to happen to these other veterans that get bounced out of the system for nothing?”
The system will become increasingly flooded with veterans due to the military’s downsizing in the next few years, Loebsack said, some of which is due to the “sequester, the other is by getting out of Afghanistan and largely out of Iraq.”
Tens of thousands of men and women will be returning home by January, he said.
“What’s going to happen with those folks?” he said. “It’s going to continue to overload the system, not to mention the mental health aspect. The demand for those services will only continue to rise.”
The concept of the VA, said Joe Mulcahy, a Disabled American Veterans commissioner, is to help veterans with their claims, “not to be an adversary.”
“My main concern is the veterans getting out of the service finding a civilian job and expanding access to mental health care,” he said.
The mental health claims already filed are only the tip of the iceberg, Loebsack said. They will likely spike once more begin returning home.
“And as we’ve seen an increased awareness of PTSD ... we’ve seen more Vietnam and Korean War veterans finally realize, ‘Now I understand what I actually maybe have been suffering from all these years,’” he said.
But when that happens, Cremer said sometimes records of those who served in World War II or the Korean War cannot be found.
“When we send in for records, we get a response back that unfortunately we cannot find your records,” Cremer said. “They say there was a fire in 1973 that destroyed the records. That, in the VA’s eyes, kills that veteran’s claim. What recourse do these guys have? A lot of veterans are missing out on stuff when they need it.”
Danny Mathews, Davis County VA commission member, said more public outreach is needed to make veterans aware of what benefits are available to them once they return.
Vietnam War veteran Phil Traul agreed. After being diagnosed with prostate cancer, he said he had no idea what benefits he could take advantage of — and no one helped him find the answer.
“The doctors have said, ‘You know, that’s not our job, we’re not here to tell you about your benefits,’” Traul said. “I agree with that, but there should be somebody.”
Loebsack said no one was thinking about what would happen to the returning soldiers when the first troops went to Afghanistan in October 2001.
“Is it not all too clear that nobody thought ahead and planned for exactly what we have now?” he said. “In the future, when we send them on a mission, we need to think long and hard about the long-term costs as well as what’s going to happen when they come back from those missions. Are we as a country prepared to do for them what we need to do? I don’t think that was factored into those decisions back in 2001.”
— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to @ChelseaLeeDavis.