Left hand, meet right hand: A tale from the VA
So the husband retired from active duty just over a year ago. 20 years as an Infantryman in the Army. It takes its toll, physically, what with all those road marches, push-ups in body armor, patrolling through mountainous terrain in full battle rattle. Infantry will do that to you no matter how Hooah you are. So when my husband’s shoulder got so bad that he had to go to the doctor about it (and have help putting shirts on) we placed a claim with the VA to amend his disability. After all, we can trace the shoulder injury to a bout of PT in full battle rattle. That is documented in his medical record. But alas, we just got word that he would get no disability for a chronic shoulder injury sustained during PT in preparation for a deployment.
You heard that right: No disability for a (clearly documented) service-related injury.
Yep. Even though he went to sick call for the initial injury, the VA won’t pay him for it because he didn’t go to sick call every few months for the same shoulder. That’s right, he didn’t go to sick call enough about it to warrant disability for it. Even though it impacts his day to day life. Even though it requires medical attention at this time. Even though he did the right thing for it at the time.
Now, I get that many of you might say that seems reasonable. And to an extent I agree. You should have to show that it was an ongoing issue in order to get disability. Heaven forbid anyone scam the VA system.
But my issue is this: if you want to be a successful solider (or military member in general) you go to PT, you don’t go to sick call at every other turn. You pop Ranger Candy and ice it when you get home and deal with it (and really, that is all they are going to tell you to do at sick call anyway, why not save the step). You do all this because the Army expects you to be tough, to be able to deal with physical discomfort but still do your job, they expect you to show up for PT unless you are in the hospital or bone is showing. And if you don’t? There will be hell to pay. You might not pass your promotion boards. You might not rank up. You might shoot your military career in the foot because command will think you weak and unfit for duty. After all, who wants to be on the front lines with the gimpy guy who is always at sick call?
But, according to the VA, if you want to get disability for any of these maladies that you endured during your career, you do in fact have to go to sick call every time it flares up. How else will you be able to document that the condition was ongoing? (Never mind having documentation of the injury and present symptoms requiring physical therapy- that won’t be enough- I assure you.) So that means every time the shoulder flares up, sick call. Every time the knee starts barking, sick call. Every time that wrist stiffens up, sick call. I can assure you that if my husband had taken this approach he would have been in sick call every week (and probably would have retired as an E5 rather than an E8). But that isn’t how the Infantry does it, is it? That would have been career stunting and counter to what his employer expected from him. So he sucked it up. And how he is paying for it by not getting paid for it.
So this is where I ask that the left hand take a minute to introduce itself to the right hand. Please, VA, I ask you to sit down with the military and get on the same page for the sake of our veterans. How can our VA system have a baseline expectation of behavior that runs counter to the baseline expectations of our military? How can we ask troops to go to sick call all the time (to benefit themselves in their retirement and comply with the VA’s wishes) at the risk of hurting their career now or upsetting their employer? How can we ask troops to suck it up, solider on, be tough knowing that it will prevent them from getting appropriate disability in their retirement?
How is any of this fair to the service member?
Well. It isn’t.
Now, I’m not advocating paying everyone exorbitant disability rates (though that is hardly a worry with the VA). And this isn’t about the extra 10% that could have gotten tacked on to my husband’s disability rating (though that 10% makes a rather large difference in care, so 10% might make a huge difference to some). It isn’t about the money (though, again for some, that 10% is a huge difference in pay). It is about the fundamentally flawed relationship between the VA and our armed forces. It is about the military expecting one thing and the VA telling you that was all wrong, after it is too late. It is about punishing our veterans for doing exactly what was expected of them while they were serving. And it has to stop.
But I know better. I know this won’t change any time soon. I know that the VA is staunch in its ways and so is the rest of the military (and frankly, what happens with the VA is the least of the military’s worries). They both think they are right and, sadly, these two will never really be on the same page. But I will tell you all this: If your service member has chronic injuries that they blow off in the name of Hooah or Oorah or whatever, make them go to sick call- multiple times- for it. Period. This is especially important if they are close to ETS-ing or retiring. Go to sick call. Get it on the books. Show that it is chronic. Document the hell out of it. Because this is the only way you will get an accurate disability rating (but be prepared to get low-balled anyway, then meet your local VSO and appeal it- that is another post for another day). There is no reward for sucking it up in the eyes of the VA- I promise you.
It is so sad and infuriating to see our veterans getting punished by the system set up to serve them, all for doing what the Army or Navy or Air Force (etc) asked them to do. It is sad to see that these two sides refuse to discuss these issues to get on the same page for the benefit of those who served. You simply cannot ask them to be one way when they serve but punish them for having done exactly that once they retire. It isn’t right and it isn’t fair. And I bet, deep down, the VA knows it too.