Vietnam veterans struggle to navigate VA system
Vietnam veteran Weldon Holmes came back from the war 46 years ago, but has long fought with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Photo by Rugile Kaladyte.
Weldon Holmes, 67, clenches and unclenches his fists as he tries to figure out what exactly he wants to say.
He wants to tell his story and for someone to listen.
But he also wants change.
For at least the past 14 years, the Vietnam veteran has struggled to get through the bureaucracy of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Holmes is one of more than 440,000 veterans in the country with pending appeals that need to be resolved by the Veterans Benefits Administration.
The average wait time is three years, according to a press statement by VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald earlier this year. And for the appeals that reach the Board of Veteran Appeals, the wait is at least five years with thousands of cases lasting much longer.
McDonald said the VA needs resources to create a simplified appeals process that would enable the department to resolve appeals in a reasonable time frame. He said the backlog of claims has been reduced to 82,000 from a peak of 611,000 in March 2013.
But to veterans like Holmes, who are still waiting, this offers little consolation.
Some days Holmes is hopeful, and other days he can’t hide his anger from boiling over.
Cutting red tape
Vietnam veteran Weldon Holmes with his wife of 26 years, Debra Holmes. They both enjoy traveling and photography. Photo by Rugile Kaladyte.
He and his wife of 26 years, Debra Holmes, arrived at the Victoria College Emerging Technology Center for an Annual Veterans Summit in July.
They drove in from their rural Victoria County home in hopes of speaking about their experiences during a question-and-answer session.
Congressman Blake Farenthold, who hosted the summit, has a team of “Red Tape Cutters” designed to help his constituents deal with the federal bureaucracy.
Many of the calls to his office, Farenthold said, are from veterans.
Holmes and several other veterans criticized how the government treats veterans who desperately need help.
Holmes remembers the first time he contacted the congressman was after a decade of trying to get his disability documented with the VA so he could receive benefits.
The congressman’s staff helped him file, and he started to receive checks for 60 percent disability.
Months later, Holmes contacted the office again to review his case because he said there were health conditions missing and because he could no longer work; he was barely making ends meet.
Earlier this year, Holmes contacted the Victoria Advocate with his concerns.
“I’m tired,” he said at the time. “I’m tired of fighting.”
He was upset that the congressman’s office accidentally mailed him medical documents that belonged to two other individuals.
A complicated case
But why did Holmes have to turn to a politician’s office to figure out issues with the VA?
A few weeks later, he received a third denial letter in the mail.
He was seeking an appeal on the basis that his case needed to be reviewed to reflect that he was permanently disabled by a service-connected disability.
Weldon Holmes reviews the various medications that were prescribed to treat his physical and mental illnesses. Photo by Rugile Kaladyte.
Holmes was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, tinnitus and hearing loss, among other conditions.
He also has peripheral neuropathy, which is nerve damage in his back that makes it painful to walk, and is treated with a series of injections at the VA hospital in San Antonio – an almost five-hour round trip.
He also suspects that he, like many others, was exposed to the toxin Agent Orange in Vietnam.
“I know that there are a lot of people out there just like me,” Holmes said.
Crossroads Area Veteran Center
2805 N. Navarro St. Suite 501
Hours: 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; closed from noon to 1 p.m.
This is a one-stop shop designed to assist military veterans who need help applying for various benefits that they qualify for and can refer them to other local agencies. The center is in the Dr. Pattie Dodson Public Health Center.
A peer coordinator with the Military Veteran Peer Network, Victoria County veterans service officer and peer-to-peer specialist, Texas Veterans Commission benefits officer, Disabled American Veterans service officers and a licensed professional counselor are available several days a week at the center. The center hosts informative workshops on topics such as resume-building, financial fitness and CPR.
Victoria County Veterans Council
Commanders of 10 area military organizations meet monthly at the American Legion Hall, 1402 E. Santa Rosa St.
For information, call Chairman Benito Partida at 361-220-0247 or email email@example.com.
Victoria VA Outpatient Clinic
1908 North Laurent St., Suite 150
In addition to primary care, this clinic has mental health, nutrition, podiatry and social work services available to eligible military veterans.
The clinic is open weekdays until 4:30 p.m.
For immediate help:
Go to the nearest Emergency Room
Call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
Call the Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, press 1 or text 838255. veteranscrisisline.net
Free activities for veterans
Many social events are planned throughout the year by volunteers with donations from the community and include fishing trips, horseback riding, dodgeball tournaments, cigar nights, paintball and barbecues.
Contact the Crossroads Area Veteran Center for more information.
WHEN: 12:15 p.m.-1:30 p.m. Tuesdays
WHERE: Citizens HealthPlex
Talk with combat veterans over coffee and donuts
WHEN: 9 a.m.-10:30 a.m. Tuesdays
WHERE: Victoria Mall police classroom
WHEN: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays
WHERE: Pure Fitness, 311 E. Mockingbird Lane
CONTACT: 361-573-7873; ID or DD 214 required.
Peers who care
Frank Torres, a service officer for the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 169, said his group sees about 90 veterans each month.
For more than seven years, Torres has volunteered with the DAV to help veterans cut red tape and navigate through the lengthy process.
He is one of 11 service officers who assist veterans in the Crossroads.
On Wednesday, he helped a veteran who had never entered the VA system in more than 40 years. That’s not uncommon, he said.
Torres is a military veteran who waited many years himself before going to the VA.
“That’s why I’m a service officer,” he said. “I do this because I know it needs to get done.”
He said the greatest responsibility of those who help veterans fill out paperwork is to file a fully developed claim so it conveys a clear picture of the situation.
And that’s where the challenge lies.
“There’s always the human factor,” he said. Not everyone is willing to go out of their way to find a solution.
Ken Little, assistant veterans service center manager at the Houston regional office, said while it takes on average of 136 days to process an initial claim, an appeal often takes an average of 980 days, or almost three years.
Little said the VA has recently hired more personnel to handle the backlog of appeals.
In March, the regional office had 14,459 pending notices of disagreement.
The notice is needed when a disabled veteran receives an adverse decision on a claim.
Technology has improved the system, Little said.
But for veterans who live in a rural area or may not have internet access, there’s an added barrier.
“They may want to come in and see someone face to face,” he said.
Little said that’s when groups such as the DAV and Texas Veterans Commission can offer assistance to veterans who have trouble getting through the process.
After the newspaper contacted the VA inquiring about his case, Holmes was notified that he was to appear for exams in Corpus Christi.
Several weeks later, he received promising news in the mail. Holmes tore open the letter to find out he had qualified for 100 percent disability for PTSD, tinnitus and hearing loss and would receive two years of back pay.
But that initial excitement was short-lived.
After some research, he learned that for his wife to receive compensation from the VA after his death, he would need to be documented as totally disabled for 10 years before he died.
“What I want more than anything is for my wife to be taken care of when I’m gone,” he said.
He had been receiving medical care for more than a decade.
Vietnam vet struggles
So where is the disconnect?
Dr. Harry Croft, a psychiatrist in San Antonio, said one of the biggest challenges for veterans dealing with the VA is understanding how the system works.
The treatment part is completely separate from the compensation and pension part, he said.
It’s not uncommon to find a veteran who has been rated 100 percent disabled, but has never had medical treatment, he said.
For more than two decades, Croft has been contracted by the VA to process disability claims and before that, he treated soldiers in the drug and alcohol program at Fort Sam Houston.
Croft hasn’t treated Holmes, but he co-wrote a book called “I Always Sit With My Back to the Wall” about PTSD.
There are many contributing factors that made it hard for Vietnam veterans to initially get through the VA system that delayed their care.
“The Vietnam vets came home to a country that treated them terribly,” he said.
Croft said many didn’t realize they had PTSD so after the war, they checked the box that meant they could go home right away.
Even if they tried to get treatment early on, Vietnam veterans weren’t treated very well by the VA, he said.
Not much was known about PTSD or “shell shock” as it was called. Now it’s commonly recognized as a response to life-threatening trauma.
An estimated 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime, according to the VA.
“It’s certainly not from weakness of will or a character flaw,” he said.
Croft explains the disorder into four sets of symptoms:
- Unwanted recollection or flashbacks
- Avoidance or conscious effort not to talk about the trauma
- Negative thoughts and emotions that makes it difficult to enjoy life’s positives.
- Hyperarousal or hypervigilance.
Croft says it wasn’t until the veterans from more recent wars started coming home and signing up for benefits and medical treatment that Vietnam veterans returned to the VA.
But after so many years, many had turned to self-medication or drugs and grew more distrustful of the VA.
“The fact that they had to live with this for 40 years pissed a lot of them off,” he said. “They showed up at the VA angry.”
Some are labeled troublemakers, he said.
Getting treatment now unfortunately won’t be as effective as it would have been back then, Croft said.
“It’s a frustrating system, and I don’t know that there are good answers,” he said.
Holmes remembers he was a bad boy in high school who liked driving fast cars.
Eventually he volunteered to serve in the Army.
Both his father and his grandfather had served in the military.
Holmes enlisted in June 1969. After training, he was stationed as a radio operator at the Quang Tri province in South Vietnam.
While he was serving overseas, the largest anti-war protest was staged in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15, 1969. More than 250,000 people gathered peacefully, calling for the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam.
A week after his 21st birthday, Holmes witnessed something in combat that haunts him to this day.
A photo of Army Sgt. Johnnie M. Wahl in a scrapbook. Wahl died in combat during Vietnam War. Photo by Laura Garcia/Lgarcia@vicad.com.
On Nov. 27, 1969, he witnessed his friend Sgt. Johnnie Mitchell Wahl die in battle.
“Next thing I know he was flying back in a body bag,” he said with tears welling up in his eyes.
Holmes remembers that during the war, he couldn’t wait to get home. He returned to the U.S. in June 1970.
“What it was when I came back is even worse,” he said.
He remembers moving in with his grandmother and soon came into conflict with the rest of the family.
“They never welcomed me home,” he said. “They tried to push me away.”
His grandmother gave him about $8.30 to help him get back to Austin.
To this day, he has little contact with his family.
Since returning from war 46 years ago, Holmes has worked various odd jobs.
For a while he worked on an oil derrick in the Gulf of Mexico; he drove a diesel truck, worked at a sporting goods store in Port Lavaca and for several years worked for a surveying company.
His wife, Debra Holmes, was a computer technician and then an accountant until she was laid off. She has suffered from her own medical conditions.
“We really struggled,” she said. The couple didn’t qualify for government assistance and at times had to go to a local food pantry.
The first time her husband tried to fill out his personal statement for the VA, his wife found the papers crumbled into a ball in the trash can.
Veterans are asked to write a statement about how their illness impacts their daily lives, so they can determine their disability rating.
He was not ready to revisit those memories.
Holmes usually avoided discussing what he had seen in combat, but his wife eventually persuaded him to go through with the claims application.
After a few attempts, he first officially filed in 2002.
Holmes has seen at least four psychiatrists and tried various medications to help with PTSD.
“They expect you to just go on with your life,” he said.
When a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial came to Victoria many years ago, he found his friend’s name.
It reminded him of a promise he made that should anything happen to him, he would go see Wahl’s parents in Arizona.
An article about Holmes in the June 5, 2000 Victoria Advocate.
After some searching, he found them, raised money for a road trip and set out to fulfill a promise made 31 years before.
He vividly remembers the day he met Wahl’s father.
“He was looking at me,” he said. “I was the last person to see his son alive.”
Photos from that trip are documented inside a scrapbook with his military photos. He’s also held onto letters from his pen pal during the war.
His wife carefully keeps these mementos organized just as she does with the VA paperwork they have collected over the years.
Holmes credits his wife with keeping him going through the system.
“You have no idea what paperwork is until you get involved with the VA,” he said.
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