State's wounded vets at bottom for benefits

December 3, 2004

BY CHERYL L. REED Staff Reporter

Marine Lance Cpl. Andrew Derrig was fixing a dented .50-caliber machine-gun round outside one of Saddam Hussein's palaces when the bullet exploded. The blast cut through his hand, blew out an eye and scattered shrapnel over the 18-year-old.

Now, a year and a half later, the 2002 graduate of Luther North High School in Jefferson Park has another concern: How much money will the federal Veterans Affairs office in Chicago decide his injuries are worth? Disability benefits can range from $109 to $6,576 a month for an unmarried soldier.

Derrig and other wounded soldiers returning from Iraq to Illinois have good cause to worry. The VA office here is one of the stingiest when it comes to deciding how much money a disabled vet's injuries are worth, a Chicago Sun-Times examination of federal records shows.

That finding comes even as the number of disabled vets is rising to what's expected to be record levels, because of the war in Iraq and other factors.

Even though the VA's mission statement -- "To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan" — comes from Illinois' own Abraham Lincoln, disabled vets here face a tougher battle to win benefits than those elsewhere.

Some disabled vets have waited years for a ruling on their benefits. Some die waiting. Others press their appeals for decades.

Federal authorities say the rules for deciding how much disability pay a soldier will get are clear. But they acknowledge that staffers in Chicago have consistently interpreted those rules more harshly than those elsewhere, creating a situation soldiers and their advocates say unfairly punishes them solely on the basis of where they live.

"The folks who do the adjudication in Chicago are pretty tough," said Ed Anderson, a senior analyst at VA headquarters in Washington. "Folks there really look at everything with jaundiced eyes, and they are rather stringent in their application."

Six percent of Illinois' 922,000 veterans receive disability payments, which are untaxed; the national average is 10 percent.

The VA first began comparing disability awards given by each state's regional VA office in 1998. Since then, Illinois has ranked at or near the bottom nationwide. According to the VA's annual reports, Illinois ranked dead last from 2000 to 2002 for payments to its wounded. Asked about this, VA officials in Washington produced a new set of figures this week that put Michigan last during those years and Illinois second to last.

It isn't just chance, either, according to veterans advocates who note that the VA staffers who make the decisions here follow the lessons of their predecessors.

"The Chicago raters were trained by guys who saw themselves as keepers of the treasury, and they took that role seriously," said Randy Bunting, assistant supervisor for Chicago's Disabled American Veterans organization.

VA offices in Arkansas, Maine and New Mexico award the highest disability benefits -- $3,000 to $4,000 higher per veteran per year than Illinois vets. Veterans in Wisconsin get nearly $1,000 more a year than their Illinois counterparts. Soldiers from Puerto Rico see the biggest awards -- nearly $5,000 more a year than Illinois vets get.

There shouldn't be such wide disparities, said U.S. Rep. Lane Evans, (D-Rock Island), the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Responding to the Sun-Times' findings, Evans said he will seek a congressional investigation when the new Congress convenes in January.

"I don't like this," Evans said. "It's very serious for Illinois veterans."

Evans said he worries that claim delays will worsen as wounded U.S. soldiers return from Iraq and flood VA hospitals and disability offices. A higher rate of wounded soldiers is surviving injuries in this war than any other prolonged conflict.

No one in the Chicago VA regional office is intentionally trying to slight vets here, said Michael Olson, director of the office, who said he can't explain why Illinois has consistently ranked so low.

"We are granting as much as we can," Olson said, quickly adding, "I'm never happy that we are doing the best that we can."

The average waiting time for a claim to be decided in Chicago is 137 days. Typically, that's only the first step in a long process with the VA. Veterans can spend decades unemployed or working at low-paying jobs before they get any substantial disability pay.

Some die waiting for benefits

Even heroes can have trouble winning disability pay. Consider Jesus Lugo, 45. The soldier from Des Plaines was burned over 40 percent of his body when he pulled a fellow Marine from their burning barracks in Japan in 1979. The Marines honored him for his bravery. But Lugo didn't know he was entitled, by federal law, to disability pay until after his discharge, when a co-worker at McDonald's told him. In 1982, he was awarded a 10 percent disability for his burns. He pressed his claim, and 16 years later the VA increased his burn disability to 80 percent.

"I hope the men and women coming back from Iraq now don't have to wait as long as it took me to get disability," Lugo said.

Korean War veteran James Gates' disability claims date to 1978. The VA didn't decide the South Side man was entitled to any disability pay until after he died in March of heart failure at age 69.

"He never received a dime from the VA," said Bob Hodge, Gates' Chicago attorney since 1989.

Gates joined the Army at 17 in 1951 and fought in Korea. In 1953, he was assigned to Camp Desert Rock in Nevada, where the government secretly tested nuclear bombs. Blown out of a foxhole during a nuclear test, Gates ultimately lost his teeth and developed a lung disease that doctors linked to radiation exposure.

The VA consistently rejected Gates' claims, ruling first that he couldn't prove he had served in Korea and then in Nevada. After Hodge dug up documents proving Gates' service record, the VA rejected Gates' doctors' diagnosis.

Like many other older veterans, Gates' fight with the VA was hampered by the military's own poor record-keeping. Most of Gates' military records were destroyed in a 1973 fire at a St. Louis VA records warehouse.

Had Gates won his second appeal, the VA would have owed him hundreds of thousands of dollars in retroactive disability payments, Hodge said. If a vet can prove an error was made in a decision or continuously fights a decision that ultimately is overturned, the VA has to provide retroactive disability pay. But if a single appeal deadline is missed, a veteran must start all over.

"They should have made his case a priority," Hodge said. "But they didn't. They never asked him to come in and give an account, and they never tried to find witnesses. We'll never know what happened out there. Most of the men are dead, and now so is Gates."

More delays in paying disability

Even when the VA does award benefits, it doesn't mean a veteran gets the money. For instance, the VA is withholding $2,724 a month from Martin Furlan, an 87-year-old World War II veteran from Antioch, until it decides whether he can handle the money. In 1945, Furlan was deemed to have a 10 percent disability because of a gunshot wound in his foot. In 2000, the Disabled American Veterans argued that Furlan should have received 20 percent. The VA agreed and had to pay Furlan the additional 10 percent dating back 55 years, amounting to $14,738.

But Furlan's niece, Sherry Faris, 45, of Burr Ridge, thought her uncle should have received compensation for his other injuries, too. Furlan was shot in the face, in the left eye, and his foot was mangled by shell-fragment wounds. Since then, he has lived with severe eye pain and a limp. Besides a Purple Heart, he was awarded the Silver Star and two Bronze Stars.

"I think a lot of veterans just give up," said Faris, who has spent the past two years fighting the VA in Chicago for Furlan. "It's a flawed system."

Over the summer, Faris filed a new claim for her uncle. This time, the VA awarded him 100 percent disability for post-traumatic stress disorder and physical injuries. Even so, Furlan has to wait for a competency investigation before receiving his new award. The VA still sends his old award -- $205 a month -- without question.

"This is no way to treat the men who defended our country," Faris said. "They are the ones who almost died."

Never told about benefits

Furlan also has been fighting with the VA for her stepfather, Donald Satkas, who was shot twice while serving in South Korea in 1951. He also suffered frostbite on his nose, hands and feet, VA records show. Throughout his life, Satkas had a host of medical problems, including a limp, skin cancer, diabetes and colon cancer—conditions he believes were related to his service. But Satkas didn't know he could get disability pay until he noticed a poster detailing VA benefits at a VA hospital in 1990. By then, he was 59.

A veteran doesn't have to be injured in a war to get VA disability. Any injuries or diseases suffered while enlisted or serving— including car accidents—are covered.

Injuries are judged on severity and rated from zero to 100 percent. Loss of body parts, paralysis, deafness and blindness get higher payments. The money is to offset unemployment or the inability to seek higher-paying jobs. It's also meant to compensate for how injuries affect soldiers socially.

Satkas first filed a claim in 1990 and was awarded zero percent for the bullet wound in his elbow. He appealed, and the VA gave him 10 percent—about $76 a month. For 13 years, the low rating gnawed at Satkas. Then, in September 2001, a stroke paralyzed him. During an MRI scan, the family learned there was still a bullet lodged in Satkas' hip. In 2003, Satkas' family filed a new claim. This fall, Satkas received his new rating: 80 percent, mostly for the effects of frostbite. The VA denied any benefit for the bullet in his hip.

"It shouldn't have taken this long," Faris said. "My father is 73 years old. He should have been getting benefits the day he got discharged. Why don't they tell them what they're entitled to? They just deny and deny and hope you give up."

Raters 'tough' and 'overwhelmed'

The disabilities of World War II veterans are the most underrated, said John Rodriguez, a Persian Gulf War veteran from the Disabled American Veterans organization who helped Furlan and Satkas file their claims.

"You can go to any VFW, and a whole bunch of veterans will tell you that no one ever told them they could get benefits," Rodriguez said.

At a picnic in 1999, Rodriguez met five veterans from various wars who'd been awarded the Purple Heart for combat injuries. He asked about their disability pay. None knew they were entitled to that. Rodriguez said he filed claims for them, and all ended up with 100 percent disability pay.

"The problem with the VA is that each regional office is so different," said Rodriguez, who also has worked in Montana, New York, Puerto Rico, Georgia and Washington. "In Montana, I got claims done in one day. In Chicago, it's a combination of [VA raters] being tough, ignorant, compassionate and just so overwhelmed."

Each month, the Chicago VA gets 1,400 to 1,500 disability claims. These are decided by 31 raters, whose pay ranges from $52,195 to $81,323. The VA expects the wait time to increase as more soldiers return from Iraq.

In the past year, the Chicago office has decided 13,687 disability claims—just under the national average. Veterans filed disagreements on 13 percent and formally appealed about 3 percent. The Board of Veterans Appeals in Washington overturned Chicago raters 16 percent of the time last year.

Michael Stephens, who oversees Chicago's disability raters, defends the process, which is based on a review of medical and military records. "I can't say there's a lot of wiggle room," Stephens said. "I can say that it's a human process, and there is some room for individual variance."

Psychological wounds tough to prove

Veterans representatives who file claims say there is a great deal of subjectivity, especially involving post-traumatic stress disorder. About three years after returning from Vietnam in 1968, Louis Vargas, of Crest Hill, a town near Joliet, started having violent nightmares as he relived being ambushed in the jungle, watching a soldier die and seeing the faces of the dead he carried, he said. He began drinking heavily and picking fights. Eventually, he couldn't stand to be in a crowd. He couldn't tolerate loud noises. He became emotional while watching war footage. One night, he recalls, his mother startled him in his sleep, and he pointed a gun at her.

In 2000, Vargas had a breakdown. The chief doctor of the Post-traumatic Clinical Team at the VA's Edward Hines Hospital near Maywood diagnosed Vargas with combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder and told him not to return to his job as a mechanic at a nuclear power plant. Vargas never returned. He spends his days attending veterans meetings and group therapy.

But when Vargas applied for disability, using letters from a VA doctor that say Vargas is unemployable because of post-traumatic stress disorder, the Chicago raters told Vargas he couldn't prove he saw combat.

"They think it's a joke to hold someone's life in their hands," said Vargas, now 57. "At one point, they told me they would like me to prove that I was in Vietnam."

Much of Vargas' military record was destroyed in the St. Louis warehouse fire. Vargas has spent the past four years accumulating documents and pictures to support his account.

"Lou has a strong claim," said Bunting, who wrote Vargas' appeal.

Getting disability pay for Vargas' physical injuries has proved easier. The VA awarded Vargas 20 percent disability for diabetes linked to Agent Orange and 10 percent for a knee injury when a 208-pound ammunition round fell on him. But the VA has repeatedly denied him anything for post-traumatic stress disorder, even though Social Security awarded Vargas full disability, about $1,800 a month, based on the VA doctor's diagnosis.

Vargas' family says battling the VA has worsened his condition. His wife, Bernice, recently quit her job. She's afraid to leave her husband alone.

"It's been four years of torment," Vargas said. "They get you so mad and so angry, and they just expect you to say, 'The hell with it, and I'm not going to do it any more.' "

Vargas is still waiting for a decision from the Board of Veterans' Appeals in Washington.

Military discharge delays pay

Despite being paralyzed from the neck down in March after his tank rolled into the Tigris River in Iraq, Joel Gomez, 24, of Wheaton, had been waiting for the Army to decide that he was physically incapable of returning to duty. The delay has cost Gomez more than $3,800 a month—the difference between his military pay and his expected VA disability. VA pay doesn't kick in until a soldier is discharged.

"If I don't get discharged soon, I'm going to go Charles Manson on somebody," Gomez said, exhibiting his dark humor as a ventilator noisily pumped air into his lungs.

Gomez, who is largely cared for by his parents, also hasn't received his monthly military pay since April. Gomez received a $7,000 Army check recently, but the military has to complete an audit to see how much it still owes him, said Daniel Howell of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, who is helping Gomez get VA benefits.

"There's a big part of me that feels let down," Gomez said in a slow, breathy voice that keeps tempo with his breathing machine. "It's like I've been cast in the wind—that the military just forgot about me."

A coughing spasm engulfed Gomez for several minutes as his father looked on with concern. When Gomez regained composure, his father placed a tube in his mouth, and Gomez sipped green tea.

"It's like I'm 6 years old again," he said, looking around the tiny room he first had as a child.

Gomez said he doesn't regret joining the military at 17. "I'd do it again," he said.

On Nov. 10, Gomez finally got his discharge. The VA initially awarded him $5,734 a month, which didn't cover the cost of in-home medical care. To grant more, raters needed a doctor's letter saying Gomez was bedridden and needed skilled medical care. After Howell got a VA doctor to do that, the VA upgraded him on Nov. 23, to the highest rating -- $6,576 a month.

"It's a slap in the face when a soldier has to come back and wade through all this bureaucratic red tape just to get benefits," Gomez said. "It's sad that Illinois is so bad to its soldiers."

Cheryl L. Reed can be reached at

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