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West Michigan veteran challenged by neuron disease, VA bureaucracy that’s supposed to help him

Bridge Michigan
Michigan Government
West Michigan veteran challenged by neuron disease, VA bureaucracy that’s supposed to help him

ADA – Joel Smith’s tangle with the VA bureaucracy is the stuff of which nightmares are made.

A retired National Guardsman whose military service covered (with breaks) conflicts from Vietnam to the first Gulf War, Smith is 57 and no longer able to work. He suffers from a upper motor neuron disease similar to ALS – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He needs orthotic devices to walk; his speech is unsteady.

He believes it has something to do with his stint in the Middle East, particularly with the many drugs he swallowed as prophylactic treatment against possible biological warfare. There was an anthrax vaccine, and pyridostigmine bromide, a “pre-treatment” for nerve-gas attacks. His doctors can’t say for certain that’s the cause of his problems today, but they can’t say it isn’t, either.

Smith has applied to the Department of Veterans Affairs for disability benefits. In cases like his, where the cause is ambiguous in a 50-50 fashion, the advantage is supposed to go to the veteran. But Smith was turned down twice – first in 2008, again in 2010. In 2011, he said, he had an in-person appeals hearing in Detroit. Months later, he was told there was a problem with the tape recording of the testimony, and it couldn’t be transcribed.

Today, he doesn’t know where his file is. He believes it’s still in Detroit, red-flagged but stuck in some official limbo.

If so, it has company. According to a data analysis by the Center for Investigative Reporting, 14,605 veterans are waiting for a response from the Detroit regional office of the VA, as of June 2013. While that number is down from the peak of 19,672 in January 2012, it still represents a sharp increase from the 11,738 of October 2009, the earliest data point analyzed. What’s more, the average wait time for a claims was 308 days in June 2013, close to the all-time high of 321 in September 2012.

To Carrie Roy, who has helped Smith on this epic journey, those numbers are pretty bad, but typical.

Roy is manager of the Kent County Department of Veterans Affairs, and helping veterans navigate the maze surrounding VA benefits is the biggest part of her job. She points with pride to her office’s six-month average interval between application and ruling, a third of the national average of 18 months. But, she added, there are reasons for the long delays.

The system is currently being swamped by claims from soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Roy said, but Vietnam vets play their part, too:  The list of conditions linked to Agent Orange exposure continues to grow, and, as they are added, veterans are entitled to full or partial disability benefits.

But applying for them isn’t always easy, and that’s where Roy comes in. It makes a difference, she says, having an experienced person like her walking a veteran through the process – making sure the forms are filled out properly and completely, that medical records are thorough and complete.

“It’s easy to make mistakes,” Roy said. While vets can fill out their own paperwork, she added, it does require a sharp attention to detail, and “the problem is, the forms don’t necessarily have a checklist. ‘Do you have this, this, this?’ It seems like a no-brainer to me.”

Smith’s claim, she said, came into her office when it was already in the appeals process.

Michigan has almost 693,000 veterans. And Randal Noller, of the VA’s Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs in Washington, said the agency is well aware of delays, and is working to fix them.

A prepared statement forwarded by Noller reads, “VA has completed a record-breaking 1 million claims per year the last three fiscal years. But too many veterans have to wait too long to get the benefits they have earned and deserve. That’s unacceptable, and we are implementing a robust plan to fix the problem. We are building a paperless, digital disability claims system – a lasting solution that was implemented in all our 56 regional offices this year. This automated system will transform how we operate and ensure we complete all claims in 125 days with 98% accuracy by the end of 2015.”

Roy, now in her third year of helping vets make their claims, said she, too, sees improvement, even in the Detroit office, which, Smith said, has a reputation for slowness.

“Personally, I’ve seen a vast improvement. in the last 18 months,” Roy said. “They have new leadership, and they’re working on the issue.”

All of which is little comfort to Smith.

“(The VA has) mountains of papers from the best institutions in the U.S., saying I have this problem, the doctors no idea what’s causing it, but it’s probably service-related. (But) you just don’t get anywhere.

“The lack of communication is probably the worst. No one tells you anything.”

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has lived in Metro Detroit since 2005, working as a writer, editor and teacher. She worked for 20 years as a columnist in Fort Wayne, Ind. and was a co-founder of, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. 

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