Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Fight on the Homefront

Tim Sanders is home from the war, but he is still fighting. Now he is fighting for himself, and his foe is the system that promises to stand up for those who stand up for us.
Walking up and down the sidewalk near the Colmery-O'Neil VA Medical Center, Tim Sanders looks like a model for the "Army Strong" ad campaign.

Except, that is, for the placard he is holding high proclaiming, "Vets are losing their benefits."

Sanders, an imposing 6-foot-3 inches tall, isn't the picture of health he appears to be. After tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, he is considered 50 percent disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs. He suffers physical, emotional and now bureaucratic problems.

For starters, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He also has back and knee problems from paratrooper duty.

"The transition from combat veteran to civilian was very difficult for me," he said.

Now 32, he is entitled to care at the VA medical center and normally receives a VA check for $730 each month. This month his check was reduced to $196. He can't pay his rent or other bills.

The VA asserted he owed money for medical expenses he incurred in 2006. The VA began retrieving the money from his monthly allotment. But Sanders insists he doesn't owe the money and believes the error is being corrected, thanks to the efforts of a Veterans of Foreign Wars representative who went to bat for him.

Sanders still hasn't seen the missing money, but even if it arrives soon, he is on a mission to bring public attention to what he considers the VA's insensitivity to the needs of veterans like himself.

So, he continues picketing at S.W. 21st and Gage as a matter of principle.

"I believe our government is being a tyrant. I'm proud of my country. I'm not proud of my government," he said.

Because of the toll that his service has taken on his body, some days he can only picket for two hours, but he makes sure that he is out for those two hours, waving to friendly motorists and holding his sign. "I've had it," he said. "I've been passive. I'm not going to be passive anymore."

I have a long track record of being pissed off over the hosing our veterans have been getting. I have watched in horror as the VA, rebuilt from the ashes to become a model system, has been destroyed by underfunding and the stresses of treating the veterans of two wars that have ground on for over five years.

If it were up to me, all veterans would have their benefits approved provisionally and vetted later, since over 90% are eventually approved anyway. I would also cease and desist in collection efforts. If a Veteran who receives a monthly stipend is found to be in arrears, if the veteran is not at fault and did not commit fraud, the balance should be written off. No veteran should ever open an envelope expecting to see seven hundred bucks and instead see less than two. That's just wrong - no one can live on that, and it is callous to expect it. If overpayments absolutely must be recouped, and the veteran is going to be getting benefits the rest of his or her life, for Christ's sake, take twenty bucks a month! We can tighten a hell of a lot of other belts before we get down to the point we take VA benefits from people who served in combat because some 702 somewhere made a clerical error.

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