A lot of people think the Veteran’s Administration is an unwieldy bureaucracy set up to help veterans. In my experience this is true of most of the individuals who work at the VA. But the organization itself is set up to do as little as possible for veterans while creating the illusion of a deep concern for those who fight our unending wars. Without this slide-of-hand, along with the flag waving and parades, far fewer young men and women would join the military.
There is a battle raging right this moment between disabled Vietnam Veterans and the VA over a proposal to strip these old warriors of a huge chunk of their benefits. If you don’t know about this, please click here. What I want to talk about today, though, is a very personal dilemma the VA bureaucracy has provided for me.
If you’ve read My Life with a Wounded Warrior, you know being married to my Jack is both a joy and a challenge. You know that Jack stepped on a landmine just outside Danang in ’65, died, and that a corpsman yanked his eighteen-year-old body back from that glorious light into the same stinking jungle he had just escaped. You know he’s been pissed off ever since.
In 1992, over twenty-five years after that day in the Marble Mountains of Vietnam, and after ten years of appeals and persistence, the VA awarded Jack a 100% disability based on his physical wounds as well as on his raging post-traumatic stress. I’ve lived with this man for almost three decades and I assure you the psychological trauma of that war was far more debilitating than his physical wounds. Jack was happy to receive the 100% rating, but he contested the fact that he was not rated at 100% for PTSD and that the VA had factored in something called unemployability in order to bring him up to that 100% figure. If you don’t understand how VA ratings are calculated, that is because you are sane.
It goes something like this, and I’ll do my best to make it simple and quick.
Jack was awarded 70% disability for the damage done to his body when he stepped on that landmine. Because Jack changed jobs, wives, or locations every few years. Because he could not get along with authority. Because he had raging nightmares, slept with a .357 under his pillow, was incapable of forming any intimate relationship, and was, generally, self-destructive, the VA decided Jack was 50% disabled from PTSD. A normal person might think the VA would simply add the 70% and the 50% together to get 120%. But no
The 70% for physical wounds + 50% of the remaining 30% = 85%.
But the VA are such good guys that if a veteran’s total disability is over 70%, and if he meets a long list of other criteria I’m not going to go into here (see above stated problem with authority figures and add the inability to stand because of the 66 pieces of shrapnel still embedded) the VA threw in something they call unemployability and out of the kindness of their black heart, awarded Jack that first 100% rating in ’92.
I know this is confusing, but I’m begging you to stay with me just a little longer.
Jack contested this rating. Not because he wanted more money. 100% is a 100%. But because he felt he deserved 100% for post-traumatic stress, with his physical wounds thrown in as, essentially, bonus points. Seven years later the VA agreed with him. However, because we had moved twice in this time and missed one of the many appeal deadlines by two weeks, they began his new rating in the month they finally approved it. November of 2010. 100% for PTSD, 70% for the landmine damage, and by then they threw in diabetes and parkinsons and dementia and came up with some ridiculous figure like 240%. Same amount of monthly award.
Just recently, with Jack’s new diagnoses of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, we have needed a lot more help from the VA medical system and Jack qualifies for at least some of that help BECAUSE he has a 100% rating for ONE disability. PTSD. So, it turned out to be an important decision when Jack fought them all those years to get the rating he has now.
While the system relies on wives giving up their own jobs and caring for their husbands, the VA requires a veteran be 100% disabled for ten years before his wife is eligible for any pension at the time of his death. That pension is a little less than one third what the veteran is receiving. That’s a blow to the budget, but one day shy of that ten year mark and the wife gets nothing. And when the VA made Jack’s latest ruling in 2010, they reset the clock. So, unless Jack lives until 2020, at the time of his death, I will be attempting to live on my social security of $242 a month. And, given the disease Jack is dealing with, it is unlikely he will live long enough for that reset VA clock to tick down the required ten years. We hope he lives that long and longer, of course. I work every day to provide the care and social and mental stimulation which will keep him with me until he’s in his eighties or nineties. But the reality of the progressive illness from which he suffers does not make for a strong possibility that will happen.
The Veteran’s representatives here tell me to wait, do nothing, hope we beat the odds and Jack lives another three or more years. They tell me if he dies before November of 2020, then I can write my congressman, fight for that pension just like I’ve fought for Jack’s care all these years. It IS possible that, at the time of his death, the VA will look at the fact that they have rated Jack at 100% disabled for almost twenty-five years now. It IS possible they will overrule that date on the computer and be reasonable.
But no one can verify that for me and thus, the possibility gives me no comfort.
I am an educated person. I could work, even at sixty-six, I could find a job. And, to take care of myself, that is what I should do and I should do it immediately in order to build up some savings and have an income in place at the time of Jack’s death. Except Jack can no longer be left alone for any length of time at all and, even though he has a worker twice a week and goes to day care three days a week, neither of those reliefs give me anywhere near eight hours to work on those days.
Besides, as those of you who are faithful readers of this blog have already gleaned, even with all this help, I am at my wits end to provide the care Jack needs. I don’t think I can work AND continue to care for him. I fear that my working would mean Jack would have to go into a care facility, and that is not a possibility I am willing to consider. Not yet, not when I can still care for him in his own home.
So, why have I shared all this with you? In part because I am not the only wife of a veteran who is dealing with this. In part because being a member of a caring community helps me to deal with these difficult decisions. And this may be the most important reason, because when someone, anyone, suggests war as a solution to whatever current situation pops up in the news, I want you to remember that the cost of war does not end when warriors straggle home from a battlefield. It does not end for the veteran and it does not end for all those of us who love them.