Military
11:36 am
Thu August 15, 2013

Vietnam Veterans Recount Frustration With Benefits Process

Florida Congressman Ander Crenshaw, R-Jacksonville,  along with the chairman of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee, will meet with leaders of Jacksonville’s veteran’s community this afternoon to discuss their concerns.

WJCT
Vietnam Veterans Richard Plesak, left, and Stuart Berman, right, have had a hard time claiming benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs decades after their service.
Credit Cyd Hoskinson

It’s likely that the list will include questions about veterans’ benefits, specifically, why it takes so long for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to approve compensation claims.

WJCT’s Cyd Hoskinson spoke with some disabled Vietnam Veterans about the benefits process and what it took for them to get the VA to sign off on their requests.

Veterans have come from across the state and around the country to attend the Vietnam Veterans of America convention this week at the Hyatt Regency on Jacksonville’s north bank.

Among them is 65-year-old Richard Plesak from Cape Coral, Florida. Plesak joined up in 1965. 

"I enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17, on the day of my birthday, January 3rd. January 26th I was on my way to boot camp.  August 5th, I was in Vietnam," he says of his service.

"When I got out of Vietnam, I knew there was a problem, my family knew there was a problem, but we didn’t know what the problem was."

For Plesak, the Fourth of July was the worst.

“My family and friends would all hide because I would turn into a monster. I could not take the fireworks.  The firecrackers—small arms fire. The nice explosives that everybody loves to hear—that’s incoming.”

Plesak says he’d heard of World War II veterans suffering from something called "shell shock" but it wasn’t until around 2005 that he finally figured out what was going on with him.

“My wife saw a TV show and they mentioned PTSD and she looked at me and she said, 'you have that.'

That's when Plesak started getting help. He is now considered 100 percent disabled, but it took him four years of wrangling with the VA to get the designation.

70-year old Stuart Berman, from North Fort Myers, served in the first U.S. Naval squadron to go to Vietnam in the late 1960's.

Berman says he suffers from high blood pressure, diabetes and neuropathy caused by his exposure to Agent Orange nearly 40 years ago.  But he had to wait for Congress to recognize his war service before he could apply for disability compensation.

“They first approved the ship serving somewhere around 2010, 2011 and that’s when I started the approval process,” he said.

When asked how it’s going, Berman says he's been going in circles.

"I received a letter from the VA saying they had not received the medical records from doctor one and two, but to the best of my knowledge they have the records."

Or maybe not, says Marc McCabe, bureau chief for the Vietnam Veterans of America and regional director for the Department of Veterans Affairs in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"It can get lost because it goes in the mailroom on the bottom floor, the mailroom stamps it, sends it in a plastic tub up to what we call triage on the third floor. Triage, then, is supposed to associate those records with the veteran’s claim file," he says.

"I assist them in developing their claims to fight to gain an earned benefit that they’ve fought for their country for."

According to McCabe, it’s a process that can take more than a decade.

“In Florida alone, we’re running 18,000 backlogged claims in appeals status," he says. "We’ve had claims where it’s been 18-years before it finally got a favorable resolution"

McCabe says the VA is in the process of switching to a paperless claims system which should solve the problem of lost documents.  But it won’t fix the root cause.

“If someone screws something up, 'screws the pooch,' as they would say in Vietnam, there’s no accountability."

"Until you get accountability, you cannot get the professionalism we need."

You can follow Cyd on Twitter at @cydwjctnews.