Categorized | Bronx Neighborhoods

Veterans Helping Other Veterans Navigate the Complicated Process of Filing for Benefits

The veterans of the 23rd Chapter of the DAV. One veteran wears a leather vest which reads: DAV Chapter 23, Bronx NY. Francesca Tiana for the Bronx Ink.

Every Wednesday, Richard Castellano meets four of his friends at Patricia’s restaurant in Morris Park. The friends have a lot in common. They are all of Italian-American descent and are all veterans of the Vietnam War. They enjoy food and wine and discuss traveling back to Italy to secure citizenship. Castellano says they hope to retire there, like Americans do in Florida. 

Castellano and his friends have something else in common. Every month, they attend a meeting of the 23rd Chapter of the Disabled American Veterans in the Bronx. The DAV, along with the National Service Officers it employs, is primarily known for assisting veterans with disability benefits claims filed to Veterans Affairs. 

The purpose of the monthly meetings is “to get as many people, new, young, old, it doesn’t matter, to come and let us explain to them what we do and why we do it, ” Castellano said.

Veterans who have become disabled as a result of their service are entitled to benefits. Veterans claim benefits for conditions ranging from cancer to diabetes to tinnitus. Depending on the ailment and the claim, Veterans Affairs will assign a disability rating from 0-100%.

“If you went to a normal doctor coughing and sneezing they would tell you you have the flu. If a veteran goes to a doctor they tell them they have a 30% flu,” Castellano said with some sarcasm. 

This rating determines the amount of benefits given to the veteran, which can range from prescription medications to compensation for them and their dependants.

But applying for those benefits and receiving them can be challenging, especially without help from the DAV.

“Our goal is to get them from point A to point B in a straight line – not all this get referred here, jump them over here…that’s when they get discouraged,” Castellano said.

The VA has a list of conditions which are presumed to be connected to service, called “presumptives.” These conditions are relatively easy to secure benefits for. Often, a veteran’s condition isn’t on that list. The DAV helps them find a way around this. 

Judy Russell is one of only two employed National Service Officers who serve with the 23rd chapter of the DAV in the Bronx as well as New York, New Jersey and surrounding areas – the rest are volunteers with the DAV. Russell is a veteran herself, who served as a medic. Russell helps veterans tackle the complex guidance laid out by the VA and gather evidence to support their claims.

When Castellano put in a claim for bladder cancer, he associated it with his service while at Camp Lejeune. The VA provided treatment but didn’t pay Castellano benefits as bladder cancer wasn’t listed as a presumptive. Castellano then put in a claim for prostate cancer which he associated with Agent Orange exposure. This was a presumptive condition and he was granted benefits.

About a year and a half ago, the VA announced that they were going to consider the bladder and prostate together as presumptives as they are in a similar area of the body. To compensate for the years Castellano should have received benefits for his bladder cancer, Russell was able to claim retroactive pay on his behalf dating back to when the VA began treating Castellano for the bladder cancer. Together, they won the case. 

The DAV advocates for veterans in a way the VA cannot. The VA is a government agency, while the DAV is dedicated to the service of the veterans and the veterans alone. 

“I have guys fighting 8 years on a claim, I get it done in 6 months,” Castellano said, referring to the amount of time it takes for a claim to get approved when it is handled by the VA alone.

Russell also described an instance that occurred during the pandemic. In Michigan, a veteran’s widow had been denied for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation. According to benefits.gov, “Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) is a tax free monthly benefit paid to eligible survivors of military Servicemembers who died in the line of duty or eligible survivors of Veterans whose death resulted from a service-related injury or disease.” In this case, the condition listed on his death certificate, COPD, was not what he was service-connected for. However, the veteran did have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

Russell was able to connect his condition to the veteran’s service by proving, through a written statement given by the widow, that his PTSD caused a smoking habit which exacerbated his COPD which caused his death. Therefore, the disease that caused the veteran’s death was connected to his service and his widow was granted compensation.

Veterans can also use a “buddy system” to provide evidence for their claims.  In other words, a veteran who served with the claimant can verify their claim. Castellano encourages veterans to retain relationships with other veterans once their service has ended for this vital reason. 

When claims get denied, it isn’t always the end. Sometimes they are denied on a technicality: “No doesn’t mean no, it means no right now… because you didn’t put a comma after a word,” Castellano said. If claims are denied, eventually a formal appeal is filed which can take three to five – years. “If all the evidence is there and they still say no, you’ve got to come up with something else,” Castellano said. 

For vets who receive their healthcare through the VA medical center, filing claims may be especially challenging. Doctors may be “unwilling to assist the veteran with linking things together, because they work for the VA they are concerned their job may come under scrutiny,” Russell said.

Veterans can appeal if they feel they have been wrongfully denied benefits. Russell’s own brother was successful after a nine-year appeals process.

Hung Szeto has been represented by the 23rd Chapter of the DAV for many years. Szeto served in South West Asia during Desert Storm 1991 as a mobilized Marine reservist. After 9/11, Szeto served as a mobilized national guardsman in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. 

Szeto said he suffers from Traumatic Brain Injury, has endured lower and upper spinal surgery, surgery on both knees, both feet, his shoulder and his eye, shrapnel removal and chronic unexplained cough severe enough to induce vomiting. Szeto’s disability rating took nine years to go from an initial 10% to the current 100%. 

As of June 2022, the VA has a backlog of 148,507 claims overall. This number sat at 100,000 or below until the pandemic, where it spiked to over 200,000 in June 2020. This number does not include claims that have been appealed. Almost a decade ago, in March of 2013, the VA recorded a backlog of 611,073 claims. 

A report by the Government Accountability Office, published in September, found that “interviews with claims processors suggest that they evaluate claims for these conditions inconsistently based on inaccurate interpretations of VA’s claims processing procedures.” In particular, the GAO observed an inaccurate interpretation of when the 1-year-manifestation period required for conditions to be presumed to be connected to Agent Orange applied. 

According to the report, “the VA’s guidance does not clearly address these issues” and this might result in an incorrect application of the 1-year manifestation period and “could inappropriately deny benefits to some Vietnam veterans.” 

The existing research suggests that when a person is exposed to Agent Orange, they would develop these conditions in about a year. Elizabeth Curda, the author of the GAO report said: “Nobody has looked at a longer period of time, it doesn’t mean that research doesn’t exist or couldn’t exist that would say something different. It is what it is- that is the state of the knowledge as it is.”

This report by the GAO is the second one in two years that addresses concerns related to the claims processing system as laid out by the VA. The first was published in December, 2020.  

“We’ve taken real strides to speed up the time it takes to deliver benefits to Veterans,” said VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes in an email. 

Hayes did not respond directly to the GAO’s findings and the possibility for the wrongful denial of claims or the work done by National Service Officers. 

He did address the time it took to process claims, an issue that has dominated the conversation surrounding the VA since the claims backlog peaked again in 2021.

“Over the past year, we have dramatically increased claims automation, hired more than 1,600 claims processors, and invested heavily in increasing the number of military personnel files we have proactively scanned into our systems.”

Castellano said veterans are often discouraged from seeking care during service because “we are taught to be warriors and suck it up.”

“It’s not that they (the veterans) are looking for money- they got messed up,” he said.

“You can have all the money back, give me my health back.” 

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