Fight on the home front
Daily News, Bowling Green, Ky.
Bowling Green, Ky. — Edwin Phelps remembers the years immediately following his return from the military. It was a long waiting game. Even though he qualified for disability income, the Bowling Green veteran received only $3,000 to $4,000 – over a four-year period.
After years of dealing with frustration, he wrote the government a check for about $4,000. He was so upset that he didn’t want to accept any money, even though he had been promised and earned it.
“I just got aggravated ... I got mad at them,” he said.
His story is far too typical, veterans say, as soldiers grow frustrated while waiting for promised benefits. It’s one problem that plagues soldiers who return from duty.
As a plethora of fighters have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, issues such as benefit hurdles and unemployment are magnified.
On one hand, there are several benefits that are offered to veterans, from disability funds to medical care to college money. On the other hand, soldiers who just returned from duty are dealing with a backlog in benefit applications, which means the process of getting benefits can be drawn-out.
In some cases, veterans wait years to receive benefits, and it can take a while to even find out what benefits they qualify for, local veterans say.
“They get tired and aggravated with the wait, the not knowing,” said Kim Bouchey, a Navy veteran and chairwoman of the Military Liaison Board for the city of Bowling Green.
Generally, it takes 125 days for a veteran to get his or her disability rating. But as the government experiences a “huge backlog” of processing claims, many veterans wait much longer, said Loni White, director of communications for USA Cares, a Kentucky-based veteran assistance organization.
“Some of them are two years or more waiting for their disability claim,” she said.
Waiting for benefits can be devastating to families who depend on them. It leaves some families in financial limbo – for example, they cannot get a home loan or other services without that income estimate. As a result, several military families’ lives are on hold, veterans say.
And many depend on their disability check for basic needs. As they wait for it, many military families find themselves in desperate situations, White said.
“They don’t have an income; they can’t get a disability check,” she said. “That means their family is not eating. That means their cars are being repossessed. Can you imagine being deployed, devotedly serve your country and then cannot get your disability check?”
The Daily News profiled a military family in December who struggled to afford Christmas gifts for their children because they were waiting for disability income.
Jeff Cummings was serving overseas when he injured his back so badly that he was told he couldn’t work. After returning home in June 2009, he spent the next two years waiting for a disability check. Cummings and his wife missed house and vehicle payments, and one of their cars was repossessed.
They filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, and because his wife had two jobs, the couple were told they did not qualify for food stamps. There were times over those two years that they weren’t sure whether they could afford food, they said.
“I haven’t received a penny, and it’s been tough financially,” Cummings told the Daily News in December, adding that he expected a check that week. “I don’t need anything, but the kids deserve something. I’m trying to do everything I can for them.”
But a backup in benefits is not necessarily a new problem. It has plagued veterans for decades. Phelps, for example, gave up on his disability funds after serving in the Vietnam War.
“I wasn’t going to beg them for money,” he said, adding that he shouldn’t have to. “I spent a year in Vietnam.”
Other veterans become frustrated when they don’t qualify for benefits that they feel they deserve. After working on jet aircraft for three years with the Marines, Jim Manley developed a hearing problem and tinnitus. But when he returned from duty in 1962, he was denied benefits, he said.
He decided to reapply last year, and, 50 years after returning from duty, he qualified for medical benefits.
“That gets me into the (Veterans Affairs) health care system,” said Manley, of Bowling Green. “I couldn’t do it for 50 years because I didn’t qualify.”
The government is receiving an increased number of benefit requests for multiple reasons, but veterans should continue to file their claims to receive the benefits they are entitled to, said Paul Hardless, branch manager for the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs in Louisville.
Still, some improvements are being made. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has promised that its system will be cleaned out and the backlog will cease to exist by 2015, White said.
A new program called eBenefits is an online system where veterans can apply for benefits, check their status and payment history. It can make the process a little faster, said 1st Sgt. Brett Hightower, a Bowling Green veteran and former Bowling Green Police Department captain.
Additionally, the Army has developed a new system that allows veterans to find out more quickly what benefits they qualify for, Hightower said.
And not all veterans experience problems getting their benefits. After being wounded in Afghanistan in 2008, it took Hightower about a month to learn what benefits he would receive and then three months for his initial compensation, he said.
Hightower, who works for the U.S. Army Wounded Warriors Program, was checking on a police station that had been attacked by the enemy when gunfire exploded from behind him. As he checked his comrades, two enemies lying in the bushes shot at him.
The first round hit Hightower’s helmet and, as he returned fire, someone threw a grenade, knocking Hightower off his feet.
“When I opened my eyes, my ears were ringing ... and a lot of blood was coming from my face,” he said. “I thought, ‘This might be a life-ending type of injury.’ I prayed.”
He had an artery condition and went through jaw reconstructions. “The hardest part for me was going through the recovery phase because there were so many unknowns,” he said.
In many cases, if veterans are not waiting for disability funds, they’re scrounging for jobs. Unemployment is one of the biggest problems veterans face today. Many return from duty with very marketable skills, but few opportunities, White said.
The biggest challenge is a weak economy and poor job market, giving veterans few job options when they come home. Additionally, many who transition from a military career have difficulty with resumes, interviews and job searches, mainly because they’re not used to the civilian job market.
“These veterans don’t know how to verbally translate what their skills are,” White said. “Veterans are coming back to a fight on the home front, no doubt about it. They’re facing a lot of competition to get a job.”
Some veterans leave civilian jobs for the military, and those jobs can still be there when they get home, but that depends on many factors. Most employers want to keep soldiers’ jobs open for them, Hightower said, but in the midst of layoffs and business closures, that is no longer a guarantee.
Veterans often return home to find their former jobs gone. Some companies – and even the government – promise that employers are hiring veterans, “but when their boots hit the dirt floor, it’s not really happening,” Hightower said. “A lot of companies aren’t looking to. I’m not saying people don’t want to, they can’t.”
And now, the Army is starting to downsize and will not allow some people to re-enlist, Hightower said.
“They’re having to transition from the military into what?” he said.
Still there is help available and reports show that unemployment is improving.
In May, an estimated 7.8 percent of veterans were unemployed, a decrease from 8.3 percent in May 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In early 2011, that rate soared to more than 12 percent, but has dropped since then, reports say.
The new Gold Card initiative from the U.S. Department of Labor gives employment services to veterans, helping them with job searches and giving referrals for job openings – it could help about 6,000 veterans in Kentucky. Also, some organizations offer tax credits to employers that hire veterans, according to reports.
And many veterans get college money, mainly from the GI Bill, and opt to continue their education after the military. Additionally, organizations, such as USA Cares, help veterans find jobs, get training and apply for unemployment insurance.
But while the numbers are improving, coming home jobless takes a toll on veterans. About 20 percent of veterans who returned after Sept. 11, 2001, said they were very satisfied with their finances, compared to 30 percent before 9/11, according to the Pew Research Center. That attitude causes serious, emotional distress.
“What we’re finding is for these young guys, it takes away that idea of self-sufficiency,” White said. “When they were serving in a war zone … they knew how to take care of themselves, they saw what was coming. They come back home, and they can’t always see that.”
©2012 the Daily News (Bowling Green, Ky.)
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