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Vets visit Capitol Hill, demand better benefits

Mar. 22, 2013 - 02:45PM   |  
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Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America brought 45 of its members to Washington, D.C., for a week to press for improvements in veterans’ programs, highlighted by a call for a presidential commission to make recommendations on how to reduce the backlog of veterans’ disability claims.

Those who took part in the “Storm the Hill” campaign said getting the Veterans Affairs Department to deliver on promised benefits is a major issue.

Zach McIlwain, a 26-year-old Army veteran who served two combat tours in Iraq, said his case is a prime example: He has been waiting 900 days to resolve a variety of disability claims resulting from his service.

Discharged in 2010, the former staff sergeant took advantage of a program that let him file a disability claim before he left the Army to get a head start. It did not work out as planned; much of his paperwork was lost and he had to refile.

Initially, McIlwain received the common 30-percent disability rating for post-traumatic stress, but since leaving the military he has also suffered migraines, numbness as a result of a contagious infection on his face and hands, and low testosterone. Some of these ailments, he believes, are the result of exposure to toxic fumes from burn pits.

Lost paperwork has become a common theme, he said.

“It was not just that first set of papers that was lost. It has happened again and again, and you cannot just provide new documents. I was told I needed to wait until the documents are requested to provide them, and that I could not just drop them off.”

It doesn’t help, he said, that the Indianapolis regional office that processes his claims has an average 611-day wait for initial benefits decisions.

On one of his pending claims, McIlwain said he has been waiting almost a year for the request to resubmit missing documents.

McIlwain is three months from graduating from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., with a bachelor degree in economics, but it has not been easy. He has suffered from depression while fighting for his disability benefits.

“I found myself one day unable to leave my apartment. I just couldn’t do it. That one day ended up being several days, and then a couple of weeks when I just disappeared from the face of the Earth,” he said. He credits his wife, Kristin, for convincing him to get help.

Former Marine Sgt. Tegan Griffith, 28, has had problems getting GI Bill benefits on time, difficulty receiving health care because she lives 2½ hours from the nearest VA hospital, and now is one of the under-employed, with a 12-hour a week job that pays $8 per hour.

“I wanted and expected so much more,” said Griffith, an Iraq veteran who deployed in 2008.

The Marine Corps, she said, “was great to me,” but being a veteran has been filed with challenges.

She was enrolled in college, using the Post-9/11 GI Bill to pay tuition and living expenses, but the expense checks were late. “My money ran out. I couldn’t pay the rent and I had to sell my car,” she said. Seeking help from VA, she was advised to “take anything I could get.”

That is how she ended up working at a scrapbooking supply store in Madison, Wis., for a small paycheck supplemented by her disability pay. It also helps that she can get free health care from VA, for now, because she is still within five years of separation from service.

She moved to Madison after living in a rural area with only a clinic to provide treatment for veterans. She was one of just six women in the area, requiring her to often travel to Madison for specialists.

“We are not asking for a lot,” she said. “We just need help.”

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