Thursday, February 26, 2009

Westchester Guardian/The Advocate.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Advocate
Richard Blassberg

It Took The Signing Of The “Recovery
And Reinvestment Act Of 2009

Of all the agencies and departments of the federal government, perhaps the one the American people should be least pleased with is the Department of Veterans Affairs. After all, it is the department charged with honoring and fulfilling the obligation and debt we owe those men and women who have risked their lives and limb in our defense.

The sad truth is, and always has been, that men and women returning home from combat around the world, for the better part of 100 years going back to World War I, have been typically short-changed; put through a series of obstacles and adjudicative processes that suggest our national priority is more involved with saving money than providing the nest care available to those who have given so much.

To begin with, the VA has always been preoccupied with distinguishing service-connected from non-service-connected injuries; and, understandably so, given the legislative intent of the enabling legislation that underpins the creation of the Department. Unfortunately, arriving at the correct adjudication has not always been a certainty, and factors, such as political connections, and prevailing public attitudes at any given time, have influenced determinations of service connection or otherwise.

Between 1968 and 1986, my family and I operated a VA Community Care home, providing care, supervision, and a good life to 47 different emotionally disabled veterans, some of whom had served in the First World War, most of whom were drafted during the Second World War, and a few from the Korean and peacetime eras. We were operating essentially a boarding house, caring for as many as 20 veterans at a time in a beautiful 19-room Georgian Colonial set on a park-like 8-1/2 acre property in Brewster, New York.

The program in which we were but one of more than 100 homes serving Franklin Delano Roosevelt Hospital at Montrose, New York, known as the Community Care Sponsors Program, was largely brought into being by the advent of effective anti-psychotic medications such as Melaril, Thorazine, and Stellazine, that came on the market in the early 60s; and made practical the management of otherwise acting-out,
schizophrenic individuals in a homelike, if communal, setting.

For the most part, the VA Community Care Programs in New York State and throughout the nation were clearly superior to any attempt in the 70s by New York’s State Hospitals to emulate them. Still, the quality of medical and psychiatric care inside VA hospitals, such as Montrose; Kingsbridge, clearly inferior and often antiquated, both in terms of staffing and facility, when compared to contemporary
municipal hospitals. throughout the 70s.

Many Community Care sponsors prided themselves in only accepting service-connected, disabled veterans, for purely financial reasons because those who had been adjudicated service-connected could comfortably afford their room, board and supervision while those who were not were often viewed as charity cases, no less worthy of an opportunity to get out of the hospital and into a family setting with children,
pets, and contact with a real community. However, the method by which the VA made their irreversible adjudications was very flawed, to say the least.

Consider Frederick W. Unger, who enlisted Monday morning, December 8th, 1941; who fought in the First and Third Armies, who killed in excess of 200 enemy soldiers as a front-line observer, and who emerged from the war and went to work driving a bus for the City of New York. He did so at $1 an hour, 48 hours a week, for some 14 months until the faces of all the men he had killed, all the struggles he survived, finally caught up with him, turning him into an alcoholic to the point of brain damage. Nevermind the 200 or more enemy soldiers he shot, bayoneted, and beat to death. The fact was he emerged from the war and held a job for more than 12 months, and, therefore, his injury was classified as non-service-connected!

It happens that one of the first four veterans that came to live with us, back in June of 1968, June 28th to be precise, my mother’s 54th birthday and, coincidentally, the 54th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, was a fellow named Eli Paul. His father schizophrenic son, “Eli, why don’t you join the Army? When the war is over, they will take care of you.” Dad was already taking care of Eli’s helplessly schizophrenic and once enlisted, and put through “boot camp”, he was assigned, appropriately enough, to Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he guarded German and Italian prisoners of war until the war ended in 1945.

The most traumatizing experience Eli dealt with in his four-year Army career was when he was exposed to a horror film on one of the many occasions that he would bring the prisoners to a movie in New York City. Of course, upon the conclusion of the war, Eli was adjudicated “service-connected”. In 1986, when we, who had been determined to be a ‘model home’ some 12 years earlier by a top-level VA team of evaluators from Washington, D.C., were virtually compelled to sell our property, or go bankrupt, Eli Paul was receiving $1895 tax-free a month in VA disability, and Fred W. Unger, incidentally the second-most heavily decorated soldier of World War II, was receiving a $225-a-month “pension”.

Given that personal history with, and knowledge of, the agency that was formerly known as the Veterans Administration, I was not the least bit surprised to read last Thursday’s updated dispatch out of Manila, in the Philippines, headlined, “Pinoy Veterans To Get One-Time, Lump-Sum From U.S. DVA,” which declared, “The United States Department of Veterans Affairs is now reaching out to all Filipino
World War II veterans in connection with the ‘new one-time lump-sum’ benefit program as a part of the new law entitled, ‘American Recovery And Reinvestment Act of 2009’”, the U.S. Embassy reported yesterday.”

The dispatch went on to say, “The United States has great respect for the bravery and service of Philippine World War II Veterans and for their partnership with the U.S. military in defending freedom. This new legislation formally recognizes the service of Filipino veterans as active military service in the Armed Forces for purposes of this law, the Embassy said.”

The Second World War ended in August, 1945, 64 years ago. Even a Filipino who fought, and was only 25 years old when the war ended, would be a minimum of 89 today. And, oh yes, the dispatch made it very clear that, “In order to provide effective transparent service, claims will only be accepted from Filipino war veterans. We encourage all Filipino World War II veterans to apply in person at one of the locations listed on the dates indicated. Claims for spouses, widows, and children of Filipino World War II veterans, will not be accepted, the U.S. Embassy said.”

What took us so long? But, then again, isn’t this the same VA that, for 30 years, argued over caring for our Vietnam veterans sickened by Agent Orange; the same VA that makes it necessary to enlist the help of a Congressman to get the care and treatment our young men and women, returning from Iraq and Afghanistan without arms and legs, so desperately need?

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