Labyrinth of VA paperwork, bureaucracy leaves vets feeling lost

The Department of Veterans Affairs in Alaska has made enormous strides the last few years connecting veterans with benefits and healthcare. But serious problems remain. Yesterday we brought you the first part of a story about Scott Harrison, a former Marine who fell into poverty while stranded between operations.

One hurdle for Harrison is not being able to get a copy of his service treatment record. In this second part of the story, we examine where exactly that record is.

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Scott Harrison standing outside the cabin he rents in Big Lake. It's too small inside for him to fit many of his possessions, so he keeps more durable items like clothes and dry-goods outside. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA
Scott Harrison standing outside the cabin he rents in Big Lake. It’s too small inside for him to fit many of his possessions, so he keeps more durable items like clothes and dry-goods outside. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA

To find out where Harrison’s service record could be, I sat down with Forest E. Powell III, the the perpetually cheerful program manager for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

That name can be confusing — though it has ‘VA’ in the title, DMVA is not part of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. Instead, Powell and other members of DMVA’s small staff work for the state. They’re a kind of liaison between veterans living in Alaska and the national VA. As a result, they are masterful explainers when it comes to breaking down a system that might be generously be described Byzantine.

“A veteran has to have a service-connected disability to be eligible for VA benefits,” Powell explains as the starting point in the claims process.

If Harrison is going to prove that his injuries and disability are connected to his time in service — the Veterans Benefits Administration, the section of the VA handling benefits — needs to comb through his service treatment record… which, given his time as a Marine in the 80s, presents problems.

“There’s a group that did not serve during the war period,” Powell said, “that was right after Vietnam and just before the Gulf War — I call it the donut hole.”

He calls it that because the consistency in record-keeping at the time varied — and veterans are often confronted with gaps in what can look like a complete service record.

But Harrison, our Marine vet, believed the VA couldn’t find his file.

After weeks of asking VA officials what could have happened to Harrison’s service record, I was finally able to verify that it does exist: The VA in Alaska has had it since at least the mid-90s.

It took almost a month of looking to confirm Harrison’s service record existed. The request was routed through an office in Portland, Ore. In the end, I didn’t see Harrison’s record, but was authorized to discuss it with Chad Pomelow, who manages the Veteran Service Center, part of the VBA within the Anchorage VA office.

“The bigger challenge is when we can’t track down records,” Pomelow explained of difficulties facing VBA guiding veterans through the claims process.

In this case, however, the record was tracked down as part of an application Harrison filed for a service-connected injury in 1996. According to the summary report Pomelow read me, doctors didn’t find compelling evidence his back injury was service-related.

“I will say that if they didn’t go get documentation of an injury then we’re not gonna have evidence of it,” Pomelow added.

The caveat is an important one, because if veterans suspect there are holes in the documentation they have options for recourse during an appeals process, such as collecting “buddy statements” or providing non-official evidence like journal entries from the time. Recognizing that service treatment records are not perfect documents, the VA has expanded what doctors will look at to substantiate or deny claims. But those appeal strategies depend on knowing what exactly is in the official service treatment record.

Harrison said he doesn’t remember ever seeing the denial the VA issued on his claim. He believes it would have been a essential piece of information to have.

“I’ve definitely made enough noise about it, I’ve definitely called all over about it,” he said.

When asked about who he speaks with at the VA about navigating the claims process, he rattled off a list: “I’ve talked with social workers, I’ve talked with doctors, I’ve talked with members of the primary care team. My understanding is it has been voiced up to the highest levels of the VA here.”

Scott Harrison spends most of each day on a hospital bed that stopped working after a water-leak this fall shorted it out. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.
Scott Harrison spends most of each day on a hospital bed that stopped working after a water-leak this fall shorted it out. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.

Harrison said he has spent enormous amounts of time trying to locate his record, and has never seen or held a copy of it.

He’s not alone. The scale of this problem in Alaska depends on who you talk to. Steve Harrison (no relation to Scott) is chairman of the Veteran’s Party of Alaska, a political group. It took him 11 years to establish his own benefits.

According to Steve, that’s not uncommon. Among his daily interactions with vets over Facebook pages and websites, he estimates about 95 percent have had a problem applying for benefits. The most frequent issue cited is that a service record can’t be found.

“That’s one of their favorite excuses — is to lie straight to the veteran’s face saying that they lost them, and that’s not true,” Steve said by phone. “So we wind up suffering and dying needlessly.”

Steve Harrison’s take is an extreme. On the other side are Veteran Service Officers — people employed by groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars to act as intermediaries between a claim-seeking veteran and the VA. Service officer Gerry Glover said most of the vets he works with get closure on the claims they file in a reasonable amount of time.

“We have a pretty high success rate,” Glover said in a phone interview.

When evidence for a claim exists, the Anchorage VSOs are generally able to get him or her connected to services. When they can’t establish a connection, Glover said, they can at least explain the rational behind the denial.

This is because VSOs like Glover know what they’re doing: they know the name of forms, the right office to call, as well as the VA jargon. Glover sees a disconnect between capable bureaucrats getting “several thousand” Alaska vets through the claims process, and on the other, a frustrated segment of veterans with a poor understanding of the complicated system.

Asked for a more specific count of how many veterans in Alaska have successfully worked with VSOs, Glover estimated more than 10,000 had a relationship with his office.

The VA has to be rigorous scrutinizing benefit claims because every tax dollar they spend is under a microscope. And because their job is to carefully scrutinize each claim that’s made, VA staff can’t serve as impartial advocates for an individual veteran’s case. That is where the VSOs come in. Glover explained that if you’re not navigating benefit claims every single day, it can seem like an “unmanageably complex” system.

“It’s very complicated, there are many different diseases or conditions or injuries,” Glover said. “So it’s not a very simple process and it’d be hard to simplify that.”

Glover feels the Anchorage VA office doesn’t have enough VSOs. It can be a long wait getting a benefit claim like Scott Harrison’s seen all the way through, even with a knowledgeable advocate. In 2013, the average time to complete a disability claim was 387 days.

Scott Harrison said now that he knows his treatment record exists he’ll apply again for benefits. But the timeline and complexity don’t leave him feeling optimistic. He quit smoking a month ago, but otherwise his health has gotten worse, and he says he doesn’t have much hope things will get better.