Jason Vanderbie and his wife Natalie (Photo by Angela Carone)
Jason Vanderbie and Michael McPherson are comparing canes. McPherson's is elaborately carved, handmade in Africa, with a snake's head at the top. He needed something with personality, he explains, because back when he carried whatever was on sale at Rite Aid, he'd misplace it. Vanderbie's cane, on the other hand, is plain, on loan from the Veterans Administration hospital in La Jolla.
“So, the older I get, the fancier my cane will get?” Vanderbie laughs.
Vanderbie, who's 27, joined the Army at 21, hoping it would help him get his life together. But, after two tours in Iraq—a year each tour with only a six-month break in between—he couldn't kick a drinking habit.
Vanderbie, who was on his way to making sergeant, got a general discharge under honorable circumstances. Now, with a nagging knee injury, he needs a cane to walk and relies on prescription medication to ward off anxiety during the day and nightmares at night. He's twice checked himself into the psych ward at the VA and spent two weeks in jail for hitting his wife, Natalie.
In July, the Vanderbies showed up at Stand Down, the annual weekend-long program for homeless vets for which a field near Balboa Park is converted into a makeshift military camp filled with social-services providers.
“The fact that we met him at Stand Down was a huge red flag,” said McPherson, who heads a support group for vets under the umbrella of Disability Rights California. When the Vanderbies met McPherson, they were living in a motel and struggling to navigate the VA system. Vanderbie's parents have since stretched their finances to help the couple get an apartment—Natalie is seven months pregnant—but he's still not received all the paperwork he needs to file a disability claim, a process that's been complicated by the fact that during a move from Oklahoma, where he'd been stationed, to San Diego, he lost his DD 214, his military discharge papers and a vet's most important documents.
Without a DD214, his access to services is limited. Vanderbie makes no excuses for losing the paperwork, but according to the VA's website, a DD 214 should normally take only 10 days to replace. Vanderbie put in a request in February. Three weeks ago, he received a portion of the form—a page showing the awards he'd received and the dates he was deployed to Iraq—with an acknowledgement that the military was trying to track down the missing page that he needs to apply for benefits.
In a January 2008 report on VA system red-tape, Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans of America (IAVA), an advocacy organization, used the word “chaperone” to describe the attention a vet must pay to his paperwork as he makes his way through the VA's disability claims process, a process that takes, on average, six months—and four times that long if a claim is rejected and the vet wants to appeal.
“The military records system is in this sort of hybrid paper / automation limbo stage,” said Tom Tarantino, a vet and an IAVA legislative associate. “You have to take responsibility for your own record keeping. Unfortunately, the Army does not do a good job of it.”
IAVA advocated for a provision in this year's National Defense Authorization Act, Tarantino said, that would have allowed a vet's DD 214 to be sent to him electronically. “That provision was stripped,” he said.
It's not just the records system that needs updating.
The VA uses a rating system to determine a vet's level of disability—from zero to 100 percent—and how much disability pay he's entitled to. For instance, an unmarried vet who's deemed 100-percent disabled by a service-related injury will receive $2,673 a month, or $32,076 annually. A single vet who's rated 50-percent disabled will receive $770 a month.
It's a rating system that's been criticized for being both arbitrary and overly narrow. A vet might have suffered multiple injuries, but his rating will be based on only one of those injuries and, the IAVA report says, it might not be the most serious injury.
“The disability evaluation system in the VA was outdated 20 years before most Iraq veterans were born,” Tarantino said.
McPherson, who's been running the vets support group since 2002, knows the system well. A Naval officer during the Gulf War, he sustained a head injury on the U.S.S. Carl Vinson. The only thing he remembers is being carried off the flight deck with blood gushing from his head.
“Three Tylenol and three codeine and the next night I was back to work,” he said. Only years later—after two suicide attempts, alcoholism and a bout with homelessness—did a doctor diagnose him as having suffered a traumatic brain injury. It took four years and repeat diagnoses from different doctors before McPherson could get the VA to acknowledge that he'd been injured in the line of duty.
“It puts a name to what you're going through,” he said. “If you don't have that [validation], you spend your whole life cycling in and out of the system.”
The vets support group has been as large as 20, but usually averages between seven and 11, McPherson said. Next month, he'll start a group solely for Iraq and Afghanistan vets. The emphasis is on self-advocacy—that vets who've been through the system are best equipped to help those who are struggling. Vets' family members are welcome in the group, too.
Elizabeth Ellison, for instance, attends meetings with her brother Paul, a homeless Vietnam War vet. She's been trying to get Paul into housing at Veterans Village of San Diego (VVSD), but, like Vanderbie, Paul didn't have a copy of his DD 214.
“There's been a lot of times that I've had it in my wallet and had my wallet stolen,” he said. (Elizabeth received a new copy in the mail on Nov. 10.)
VVSD spokesperson Tom Mitchell acknowledged that it's difficult for homeless vets to keep track of important documents.
“I know it's a hardship for them, but we get people who come in here all the time: ‘I served here, I served there,'” he said.
However, even for homeless vets who have proof of service, local beds are scarce. The county's homeless vet population is estimated at roughly 2,000, “and we have space for 165,” Mitchell said.
St. Vincent de Paul Villages gets funding from the VA for 60 beds, said Ruth Bruland, a division director for the homeless-services provider. “Shortly after we started the program, there was a waiting list, which has only gotten longer as time has passed,” she said.
Paul has applied for a military pension, available to war-era vets with an annual income of less than $11,830 a year—which is also the maximum pension a single vet can receive. He hopes that it'll at least be enough to get a room in a residential hotel.
Too often, McPherson said, the vets in his group are more overwhelmed by the VA system than by what might have happened to them in combat. “There's a lot of bitterness,” he said. “We have to continue to battle for these benefits that are supposed to be guaranteed for us.”
McPherson has told Vanderbie that he's facing an uphill battle. The VA will want to see evidence that his PTSD is the result of his military service—already, one psychiatrist told Vanderbie that it stems from his childhood.
“He had a perfect childhood,” Natalie said.
Vanderbie didn't seek treatment while he was enlisted, meaning there's little evidence that his injuries happened in Iraq.
“When I was in, if you kept going to the hospital, you weren't really a soldier,” he said. “You were just a little—whatever. They put a label on you. I wanted to do my best, so I stayed away from the hospital.”
And, despite his drinking problem—he's been sober for nine months—he was never screened for PTSD when he was in the Army. He was discharged on March 3, 2008, two weeks before the Army announced it was expanding its PTSD screening program.
“I'm not blaming the military for what happened,” he said. “It was my job and my duty to be a soldier. I just want what's fair for serving my country.”
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