Veteran's widow in fight of her life for VA benefits
Reading Eagle, Pa.
Army veteran Lester Groff thought his wife, Nancy, would be taken care of after he died.
He earned her that security, he believed, by storming Omaha Beach on D-Day, driving a tank through the Battle of the Bulge and nearly getting killed by German shrapnel during World War II.
But 3 1/2 years after he passed away, Nancy Groff is homeless. Her life is in limbo as she stays with friends in Mount Penn and waits for the Department of Veterans Affairs to decide whether she'll receive any benefits.
Groff believes her husband's death was brought on by his disabling war injuries, making her eligible for compensation, but trying to prove that has been grueling. Her initial claim was denied, and her appeal is ongoing.
Groff will continue to struggle if the VA rules against her case, but she said the toughest part is the uncertainty. It's a feeling familiar to many veterans and their survivors while they wait for cases to be settled, veterans advocates say.
"Lester would be rolling over in his grave if he knew what was happening to me," Groff said.
Groff's troubles stem in part from the VA's backlog of claims and in part from the complexity of trying to prove a veteran's death was related to service almost 70 years earlier.
While some VA claims are settled quickly, the average time for a claim to be resolved is between one and two years, and appeals can take much longer, VA officials said.
Groff's situation also shows how important it is for veterans to plan for their deaths and to get as much information as possible about benefits their survivors are entitled to, said Dale G. Derr, Berks County director of veterans affairs.
Some older veterans were promised benefits way back when they were recruited and trusted that information, he said. Others never fully understand VA compensation rules, a mistake that can lead to catastrophic financial problems for loved ones after they pass, he said.
Lester Groff himself didn't know what he was entitled to until late in his life when he began receiving disability payments from the VA. About four years before he died, Groff was awarded a full disability pension of $2,823 per month.
He had been a self-employed building contractor, and Nancy a teacher and preschool aide, and those VA checks helped them to live a comfortable retirement until he died March 20, 2009, at the age of 84.
Nancy, now 68, was left with two possibilities for compensation from the VA: a widow's pension, if her income was low enough, or dependency and indemnity compensation of $1,154 a month if his death was service connected.
Her only income was the $12,000 she receives annually from Lester's Social Security, but that exceeded the limit for a VA widow's pension, and the VA denied her claim within two months.
The VA also rejected her claim that Lester's death was service related, taking 21 months to rule. But Nancy appealed because she still believes his death was connected to his service, explaining it this way:
Lester's left leg was hurt in 1944 when a shell tore through his Sherman tank near Cologne, Germany, leaving him unconscious, bloody and near death. The injury made walking painful, and it got more difficult as the decades passed.
He needed a double knee replacement in 2002, and nine days later he suffered a heart attack, which Nancy thinks resulted from the stress of the surgery. That heart attack led to his fatal stroke seven years later.
The Disabled American Veterans organization is trying to prove that and represents her free of charge. While officials there would not speak specifically about her case, they acknowledged VA appeals can take a frustratingly long time to decide.
"They (appeals) could take two years or four years or 10 years," said Robert McClellan, supervisor of the DAV's Philadelphia office.
DAV national service director Gary Augustine said those delays are especially common when trying to prove a death was service connected so long after the war.
Forced to leave her home
Losing her husband was hard on Nancy and so was losing his disability checks. Then shortly after he died, their apartment was infested with bedbugs, a problem that cost her $3,000 to fix. She also had a long hospital stay related to her diabetes, emptying her savings and forcing her to give up her apartment.
Her Social Security checks go mostly toward the rent she pays the friends with whom she's living and to pay for her diabetes medicine. She otherwise spends as little as possible. She hasn't seen a dentist since her husband died.
If Groff gets the compensation she's seeking, she'll receive payments retroactive to his death.
If the VA denies her appeal, her future is uncertain. Right now she can't afford to move, much less get her own place.
She has a 13-year old Shih Tzu named Cosmo, and a Plymouth Voyager minivan that's just as old, but almost everything else is in storage, including her husband's two Purple Hearts.
"I didn't think things would be in storage this long," she said.
Speedy resolution unlikely
Resolution could come in a few weeks for Groff, if the VA grants the benefits she's seeking. But if not, she could appeal further, and a final decision could be a long way off, said VA spokesman Randal Noller.
He acknowledged how difficult that wait can be on widows such as Groff.
"That is an exceptional length of time," he said.
To reduce its backlog and its delays, the VA is undergoing some major changes, adding staff, updating procedures and making a long-overdue switch from paper records to electronic files, Noller said.
"We're making progress, but we're just not there yet," Noller said.
The DAV's McClellan is a veteran himself, and while he defended the VA for its good work and recent improvements, he said he sympathizes with those who are hurt by the department's delays.
"From the time we join the military we learn to hurry up and wait, but we shouldn't have to wait this long," he said.
Groff said even some of her dealings with the DAV have been frustrating. She's had four different representatives from the group, and as each new one took over her case she felt as though she were starting over. In January the DAV lost her records, so she had to gather all her forms and resend them. Progress is hard to measure.
A recent VA hearing left Groff more optimistic, but the wait gets increasingly hard.
Friends know her as a caring, generous and honest woman and are sad to see how desperate she is for answers.
"Many, many nights I've cried myself to sleep," Groff said.
But she perseveres, continuing to gather information, fill out forms, send letters and make phone calls.
"I get discouraged, but I keep plodding on," she said. "You have to. What else can you do?"