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Despite congressional muscle, Michigan ranks near bottom in funding for veterans

After 17 years in the military, U.S. Navy and Gulf War veteran Gary Alcumbrack has done his best to navigate the civilian world even as he wrestles with nightmares that won't go away.

“I am under attack. There are bayonets and machine guns. But I am always in a confined space. I am always alone.”

The dreams are so vivid, the 60-year-old Kent County resident said, that he often throws himself out of bed. “I never had those before” military service, he said.

After long denying to himself he had a problem, he was given a preliminary diagnosis in November of post-traumatic stress disorder tied to his military service. He filed for a disability claim with the U.S. Veterans Administration. And now he waits. “They told me it could be four months but I really don't know. It could be longer. I guess you don't have a whole lot of choice but to wait.”

He has plenty of company.

With nearly 700,000 veterans, Michigan is 11h in the nation in veteran population.

But Michigan ranked 46th of 50 states in 2012 in spending per veteran, according to the U.S. Veterans Administration. It spent $4,069 per veteran, just 75 percent of the U.S. average of $5,415 per veteran. Michigan ranked last the previous year.

“I stood tall when I was called. I'm not asking to get rich. I think I earned something for it.” -- Gary Alcumbrack of Michigan, a Gulf War veteran awaiting word on a disability claim for post-traumatic stress.

The state’s low spending on veterans is a puzzle, since Michigan seems well poised on Capitol Hill to deliver for veterans. Soon-to-be retiring U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, chairs the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, and has been ranking Democrat on the committee since 1997. U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, serves on the Senate Budget Committee. Republican Rep. Mike Rogers chairs the House Intelligence Committee and was a commissioned U.S. Army officer through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, according to his website.

Bridge reached out to the offices of Levin, Stabenow and Rogers; none could explain why Michigan ranks so low in veteran benefits.

Gordon Trowbridge, a Levin spokesman, said it is unclear precisely why Michigan ranks so low. But Trowbridge said Levin is working hard to improve services for veterans – especially those from Michigan.

“It is imperative that we make sure every veteran receives the benefits and support they have earned,” Levin said in a statement. “That’s why my office fights for every veteran who comes to our office, to do all we can to make sure their eligibility for benefits is determined fairly and quickly and to help them appeal decisions when benefits are denied incorrectly.”

Trowbridge noted that Levin has secured $15 million in funding for Michigan schools with programs for unemployed veterans. That would help address troublesome unemployment among veterans. Michigan veterans deployed after 2001 had an unemployment rate of 14.4 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee. The overall unemployment rate in the state that year was 10.3 percent.

Matt Williams, spokesman for Stabenow, said the senator has helped bring veterans’ health clinics to Michigan including clinics in Alpena, Bad Axe, Cadillac, Clare, Mackinaw City and Grayling.

Stabenow said in a statement: “Every day, my office is helping our veterans get the benefits they deserve. We need a stronger effort from the VA as well as at the state and local level to make sure our veterans are getting the benefits they have earned.”

Rogers said in a statement he is monitoring the backlog in processing veterans’ service claims at the VA regional office in Detroit and is “encouraged” by its efforts, adding: “I believe America must keep its promise to service members, and I will continue to support legislation that recognizes the tremendous sacrifices made on behalf of the nation.”

Nationally, the needs of military veterans are well documented:

A report by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that the number of veterans waiting more than a year for benefits soared from 11,000 in 2009 to nearly 250,000 in December 2012. In larger cities, it reported the wait can be up to two years.

Claims filed with the VA more than doubled, from 480,000 in 2001 to more than 1 million in 2012.
About 30 percent of 1.64 million troops deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, depression or traumatic brain injury, according to analysis by the Rand Corporation.

Despite the VA's self-proclaimed goal of scheduling appointments for veterans with mental health problems within 14 days, it failed to meet that standard in a third of cases in 2013.

Veterans aged 18 to 24 and enrolled in a VA health program committed suicide at the rate of nearly 80 per 100,000 in 2011 – four times the civilian average. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, non-veterans of the same age had a suicide rate during 2010 of about 20 per 100,000.

Some 58,000 veterans were homeless on a single night in January 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. More than twice that many are homeless over the course of a year. While veterans represent 7 percent of the general population, they comprise about 13 percent of the homeless adult population.

State explains low spending

State officials speculate the low ranking in per-veteran spending in Michigan is linked to several factors. Veterans from World War II and the Korean War returned to Michigan to jobs in the auto industry and other manufacturing sectors that furnished generous pay and benefits, perhaps diminishing demand for benefits tied to their service. State officials also note Michigan lacks the large military bases of other states that serve as collection points for career retired veterans, who are more likely to have higher per-capita benefits.

But officials also say many Michigan veterans are simply not getting help they need, either due to bureaucratic snags or because they are unaware of benefits they have earned.

“There is certainly room for improvement. There are 680,000 veterans in Michigan and we don't have a list of who they are,” said Suzanne Thelan, spokesperson for the recently created Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency.

Thelan noted that state services for veterans are scattered among 14 departments. Layered on top of that are federal and local programs that can be a confounding maze to veterans.

The MVAA – created by executive order by Gov. Rick Snyder in January 2013 – aims to coordinate services among myriad programs and agencies and aid veterans in their applications for benefits.

“We are not reaching our veterans,”said Elena Bridges, who chairs the West Michigan Veterans Coalition, a collaborative of community organizations formed in 2010 to improve services in the region for veterans.

“We have Vietnam veterans who have not submitted an application for a disability claim which could be directly service related. It can be difficult for veterans who don't have someone to walk them through the process. There are so many services out there the veteran gets overwhelmed.”

Dispute over Agent Orange

Vietnam War veteran Ross Starkweather, 64, served in the U.S. Air Force from 1969 to 1976, including a tour at an air base in Thailand from September 1970 to September 1971.

Since then, he has has five heart attacks and quadruple bypass surgery. Seven years ago, he was forced to retire from his job as a truck driver because of congestive heart failure.

“I never even thought about filing a claim. I never pushed it, ” he said.

Then he met Carrie Roy, manager of the Kent County Department of Veteran Affairs. He learned that veterans who had served in Thailand were eligible for disability benefits tied to Agent Orange, a defoliant used in the Vietnam War and linked to a variety of health issues, including cancer and hardening of the arteries.

Starkweather filed a claim in November 2011 that has been twice denied. He said he was told by the VA that his claim was not valid because his service dates – which the department stated were from 1972 to 1976 - were outside the time frame when Agent Orange was used. Roy confirmed his version of events.

“I sent it back and said, 'You are looking at the wrong dates,'” Starkweather said.

With the help of U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Grand Rapids, Starkweather retrieved his complete service record proving he was in Thailand in 1970 and 1971. He is still awaiting resolution of his claim.

“I think they are dragging their feet hoping that I die so they don't have to pay nothing,” he said.

Despite Starkweather's frustrations, Roy credits the VA with working hard to reduce wait times for service claims that had been a year or more.

“We are seeing claims go through in about six months. It's not going to be fixed instantaneously, but they are working on it,” Roy said.

Ending the nightmares

Navy veteran Alcumbrack said it took him years to realize his persistent nightmares might be tied to his service, a symptom of PTSD. Months after he filed his claim, he awaits an appointment with a VA psychiatrist to evaluate his claim.

Trained as a corpsman – a medic – Alcumbrack was attached to a Marine unit charged with clearing mines in the Strait of Hormuz during the Persian Gulf War. In June of 1991, he was in the Philippines awaiting orders to return to the States when Mount Pinatubo erupted.

He was dispatched to a makeshift gymnasium next to a civilian hospital that had collapsed to assist in rescue efforts. He joined aid workers in pulling survivors out of the hospital.

“My fourth trip into the hospital I was nearly crushed. I was expecting reinforcements but they never came. One guy, in his mid-20s, had a severe compound fracture in his left leg. He has lost a lot of blood. I got enough fluids in him and splinted it and rinsed it out. He made it.

“I delivered two babies. There was an old man that had been crushed. His chest was wide open and you could see his heart beating. He was on death's door.

“There was nothing I could do for him.”

Alcumbrack has gone through two divorces and struggled to support himself in recent years, in large part because of health issues. He fractured his hip in 2006 working as a household mover and broke it again in 2011. He had hip replacement surgery in August of 2012.

Prior to that, for about six weeks, he was homeless and living in the woods near a park in Grand Rapids. He now splits his time staying with a friend at reduced rent and staying with his sister.

All that time, the nightmares never stopped.

“I didn't have a moment's hesitation,” he said of his service in the Gulf War.

“I stood tall when I was called. I'm not asking to get rich. I think I earned something for it,” he said of his service claim.

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