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Left hand, meet right hand: A tale from the VA

March 14, 2012

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.



8 Comments leave one →
  1. Michelle permalink
    March 14, 2012 9:47 am

    Oh hell, you’re singing my song right now. We’re dealing with a very similar situation -only in our case it’s a back injury and a hearing loss, all of which are documented, all of which the VA actually handled between deployments, so documented by them as well. It’s frustrating. And what’s worse is that dh is still in and wants to remain in, just wants it noted that whatever tiny little % disability they might give him is actually due to them. sigh.

  2. March 14, 2012 10:22 am

    This makes me so angry. Service members and their families should NOT have to worry about things like this. It’s disgusting.

    My father was drafted during Vietnam. He served honorably. And last October he went to the Emergency Department at a VA Hospital in Chicago for chest pain. He ended up sitting in the ER for over 12 hours. They did a CT on his chest and told him he probably had cancer. They said they would put in a referral for a biopsy, which didn’t ended up happening for almost 2 months. Meanwhile, they made sure to pump him full of Morphine, which in turn created a new set of problems . It is now March 2012 and three different hospitals and a dozen different scans later, he has yet to receive any treatment for his cancer. They scheduled surgery for next week but my half-sister literally just sent me a text message saying that my dad thinks he might have pneumonia and she’s taking him back to the ER. This will likely result in postponing the surgery.

    I know it may make me sound like a little conspiracy theorist, but I am convinced that when you really need them the VA makes you wait long enough that you either give up or die. How did this happen? How did WE end up here?

  3. Megan Harris (MeganWrites Media) permalink
    March 14, 2012 10:24 am

    My husband’s last appointment for VA disability was in November. We are still waiting to hear what, if anything, he will get for his messed up feet (plantar’s fascitis, bone spurs, etc.) and what, if anything, he will get for his knee. The waiting is getting old, but we’re trying to be patient. Others have told me he needs to start calling every week to hear back, so that’s probably what we’ll do. Never thought this would take longer than getting reimbursed for our DITY move after he ETS’ed. Fun times with the VA, huh?

    • Cortney permalink
      March 14, 2012 10:53 am

      Hounding them is the way to go. Sure it is annoying, but we are just now hearing about our initial appeal which happened close to a year ago. Being persistent is the best way to get answers because you are your only advocate when it comes to the VA. And if you haven’t already done so, look up your local VSO. Ours is incredibly helpful and very knowledgeable about the whole process (and if you don’t like the one in your area look in nearby cities- you are not obligated to use the one in your town)

      • Megan Harris (MeganWrites Media) permalink
        March 15, 2012 12:33 pm

        Thanks, Cortney! I’ll have to find the VSO. We’ve called the regional office about the DITY reimbursement, probably should try that, too, for disability.

  4. March 22, 2012 10:05 am

    great piece. my partner *knock on wood* has not had any issues yet, but he’s only in his 2nd year. it’s definitely something we’ve talked about though. he wants to prove himself and be sure he can get promoted or whatever, but to me, it’s just not worth it.

  5. June 30, 2012 2:01 pm

    I know when I was in service United States Marine Corps I went to the Regimental Aid Station to many times and they threatened me with charges of malingering if I came back. I ended up passing out going up a mountain and having emergence surgery and the head Doctor over Camp Pendleton wanted to know why I had not been to the Aid Station and when I told him they did to me. He transferred some Corps Men and Two Doctors..

  6. EODCHEM permalink
    November 16, 2012 11:45 pm

    Everything you say there is true. And if your husband is under 50% or is not in the category of Combat Related Special Compensation (CRSC) then basically all the VA compensation does is offset your retirement with the “tax free” amount from the VA. This offset used to be any rating, but veterans groups have fought, and for now settle with the 50% minimum.

    I am a retired E8 as well, and we didn’t get there by being “sick call rangers”. We Soldiered up, took the ranger candy and drove on. All I can do now is to try and help my fellow Soldiers that are currently on active duty. My advice is if you have a legitimate injury/medical issue, get it documented. You don’t have to go to sick call every day or even every week, but make enough visits to get it documented. If this is a deployment/war related incident, get it documented and as much detail that you can.

    What you really want to have is at least a medical report (not letter) stating the injury and cause determined by the doctor. And be sure to squeeze in a few follow-ups. You can be a Soldier and serve with pride, and get your medical records annotated with the right and enough documentation. If you are that worried about it, then take off a day of leave (only as a last resort) to get seen. I know that sounds bad, but you need the documentation so you won’t have to fight for what you deserve later. It will be worth it in the long run.

    When you do get seen be honest and don’t play your injury/illness down. Be honest, but be specific. For example, back pain begins when you feel the pain, for example when asked to bend in different directions stop at the point of pain and let the physician know. They will push you verbally to keep going, but you need to hold your ground when there is pain. Same goes for similar injuries/ illnesses. I can go on here, but you should get the point by now.

    Last but not least, when the time does come to put in a VA claim (if needed) use one of the veterans groups for your power of attorney to assist with your claim (feel around to see who is better in your area). Groups such as the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Veteran of Foreign Wars (VFW), etc. it is tough to battle the VA by yourself. There is two parts of the VA. The ones that treat and help you, and the ones that deal with the compensation evaluations. Remember this, because it is important. Only a submission of a claim and a Compensation and Pension evaluation can grant you a rating. Just be honest with yourself and I hope this helps someone.

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