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Vietnam veterans' new battle: getting disability compensation

THE LONGEST WAR

Changing policy has made it easier to receive benefits. But with expanded eligibility and an aging vets population, the VA's backlog grows.

May 11, 2013|By Alan Zarembo, Los Angeles Times
  • Behind John Otte is a picture of him receiving his second Purple Heart. The Vietnam veteran gets $1,900 a month for post-traumatic stress disorder and diabetes, and he has applied for full disability benefits; that filing has been pending since 2010.
Behind John Otte is a picture of him receiving his second Purple Heart. The… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

Vietnam veteran John Otte did his best to forget the war.

He got married, raised two sons and made a career working at credit unions.

But as Otte neared retirement, memories of combat flooded back. Starting in 2005, he filed a series of claims with Veterans Affairs for disability compensation, contending that many of his health problems stemmed from the war.

The VA agreed, and now the 65-year-old with two Purple Hearts receives $1,900 a month for post-traumatic stress disorder and diabetes — and for having shrapnel scars on his arms. His payments will rise to about $3,000 if the VA approves a petition to declare him completely disabled and unemployable.

"I've been sitting here waiting," he said.

Otte is among hundreds of thousands of veterans from the Vietnam era filing for damages four decades after the war. They account for the largest share of the 865,000 veterans stuck in a growing and widely denounced backlog of compensation claims — some 37%. The post 9-11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq account for 20%. The remainder are from the 1991 Gulf War, Korea, World War II and times of peace.

Basic demographics explain some of the filing frenzy. Vietnam veterans are becoming senior citizens and more prone to health problems. Any condition they can link to their military service could qualify for monthly payments — and for many illnesses, it is easier for Vietnam veterans than other former troops to establish those links. Heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and several other afflictions common in older Americans are presumed to be service-related for Vietnam veterans because the government has determined that anyone who served on the ground there was likely to have been exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange, which is known to increase the risk of those conditions.

At the same time, changing attitudes toward mental health care mean that veterans suffering from PTSD and other psychiatric conditions are now more willing to come forward. The uncertainties of older age — and possibly the decade-long spectacle of the current wars — may in fact be triggering relapses of PTSD among some veterans.

Linda Bilmes, a public policy professor at Harvard University, said the filings are a cautionary lesson. "Wars have a long tail," she said. "The peak year for disability claims from Vietnam has not been reached yet."

By comparison, payments to veterans of World War I, which ended in 1918, were highest in 1969. Bilmes said the peak for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is likely to occur around 2050.

VA statistics show that annual compensation to veterans from the Vietnam era more than doubled between 2003 and 2012, reaching $19.7 billion of the total paid to veterans that year of $44.4 billion.

Of the roughly 320,000 Vietnam veterans in the backlog, about 40% are making claims for the first time. The rest already receive some compensation. Veterans who are denied can reapply indefinitely to increase their payments as existing conditions get worse or new ones emerge.

In recent years, veterans have had an easier time winning disability pay for several illnesses.

In 1991, Congress enacted a law guaranteeing compensation to any veteran who served on the ground in Vietnam and went on to develop certain types of cancer or a skin condition known as chloracne — diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure.

As more scientific evidence has emerged, the VA has added 11 new conditions to the Agent Orange list, including Type 2 diabetes, prostate cancer and ischemic heart disease. Diabetes has become one of the most common conditions among Vietnam veterans receiving compensation. Over the last nine years, the number of cases rose from 135,000 to nearly 323,000 — more than 10% of the service members who went to Vietnam.

Many qualify for multiple ailments. The number being compensated for hearing loss — often tied to not having used ear protection — rose by more than 236,000 since 2003.

Over the same period, nearly 184,000 joined the ranks of those being paid for PTSD. Nearly a third were added after 2010, when the VA loosened its requirements so that veterans no longer had to document specific events such as killings or ambushes that traumatized them. Having lived under threat qualifies anybody with a current diagnosis.

PTSD did not become a formal psychiatric diagnosis until 1980, when the Vietnam War was long over. It was highly stigmatized at the time, but the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made it more acceptable for veterans of all eras to seek treatment and compensation.

Vietnam War medic Shad Meshad, head of the National Veterans Foundation, said he urges veterans to file claims, telling them: "You've suffered for 40 years."

Even for veterans who led productive lives after the war, the psychological trauma can lurk in the background, said John Wilson, a psychologist at Cleveland State University and expert on PTSD and Vietnam veterans.

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