George Vigil is a 63-year-old Vietnam veteran and a lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Los Alamos. Under the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs benefit system, Vigil is considered 75 percent disabled, which qualifies him for the pension that helps the income from his construction work stretch through the winter.
Or, rather, this winter. Because although Vigil has known about veterans’ benefits since he came back from the Vietnam War more than three decades ago, he only qualified six months ago.
Texas made headlines last month for Houston having one of the biggest backlogs in veterans’ benefits claims. But New Mexico, despite its own backlog, has a different problem: Many veterans like Vigil don’t know how to apply for benefits—or don’t even know they exist at all.
Take Pedro Martinez, an Iraq war veteran who didn’t know he could get a year’s worth of dental insurance after he returned from his deployment in 2004. By the time he found out, it was too late.
“Some of this information they’re not putting out,” Martinez tells SFR. And new rules, he says, are even harder to track down.
How does Martinez usually find out about changing VA benefits?
“I hear rumors,” he says. The latest one, he says, is about additional coverage for veterans who were serving in Iraq during a sulfur fire in 2003. “I have to check on that,” he says.
To observers and advocates, the notion that veterans would be kept in the dark about the benefits incurred by their service is anathema.
“When we want people to join the military, money’s no object,” Floyd Vasquez, the founder of Albuquerque-based veteran advocacy website nmveterans.net, tells SFR.
“While they acknowledge the need to persuade people with advertising to join, when it comes to persuading them to get benefits and treatment, it’s just a different story,” Vasquez says.
Vasquez and others say the gap between providing benefits and informing veterans so they can actually access them is significant.
Tom Wagner, the director of field operations for the New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services, acknowledges the challenge of connecting veterans with veteran-oriented services and benefits.
“The challenge is how quickly can we get to the veterans so we can help them navigate the various administrative and logistical processes they have to go through,” Wagner tells SFR. “Information is a big thing.”
Vigil, however, knew he was eligible for benefits long before he actually got them. The problem, he says, was calling the VA office didn’t seem to do any good.
“I should have done it when I first got home from Vietnam, but I don’t think it would’ve helped because they’re so busy,” Vigil says. “You would call, and always the line was busy.”
Milo Garcia, the team leader at the Santa Fe Vet Center, a satellite VA office tailored toward providing community-level therapy and veteran support, estimates that the five therapists in his office serve approximately 600 veterans each month. Many of those are simple referrals to a VA hospital or other caregiver, Garcia notes—but it’s still a big number.
In a way, Garcia says, that’s a good thing.
“We get a lot of self-referrals—guys who come in and talk about, for example, ‘I’m having all kinds of weird nightmares; I’m not sleeping; it’s affecting my focus at work,’” Garcia says. “You can sit with a person for a half-hour, administer a few tests and target the primary concerns—and those symptoms I just mentioned are symptoms of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].”
Garcia says self-referrals are more common now because veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan receive pre- and post-deployment training on potential risk factors and VA benefits.
But even when the information is there, some say it can be ill-timed or ill-conceived.
Jeff George, a veterans’ service officer in the Santa Fe office of the New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services, says VA benefits briefings usually occur right before or right after veterans return home, “when people have much more important things going through their head.”
Vasquez elaborates: “When folks come back, they are briefed by people at the bases,” he says. “So it’s rooms full of people and people standing at the front saying, ‘Oh, by the way, you are eligible for this and that benefit’—and they’re staring at the door and they want to go home. That’s not what it takes.”
Vasquez says he’d rather see a concerted effort to alert veterans to their benefits—or even just get them to a local veterans’ service office so people like George can help orient them.
“Someone tells you once you’re eligible for this and that—that’s not enough,” Vasquez, himself a veteran, says. “You have to repeat it to them over and over again in a way that opens them up to it. It requires an engagement you can’t really get from a Web 1.0 government website.”
But Vasquez and George aren’t the only ones who are working to correct the information gap. In Santa Fe, businesses such as veteran-tailored financial planning and home-based care have cropped up to bridge the chasm between veterans and the services intended for them.
Mary Ann Andrews, a Santa Fe-based financial consultant who specializes in helping veterans access the benefits to which they’re entitled, runs an entire business (volunteer, she notes) predicated on how labyrinthine the VA benefits system can be.
Her role, she explains, is a sort of veterans-oriented financial planning service to determine the best use of funds and methods of care for elderly or disabled veterans eligible for an assisted living pension.
Andrews uses words like “bureaucratic” and “overwhelming” to describe the process of filing for VA benefits.
“As people get older, they have a tendency not to comprehend things completely,” Andrews says. “As if that weren’t bad enough, this stuff is really confusing.”
It’s also a system in constant flux, George says.
“We are kept informed on a daily basis of all of [the rule] changes—and they do change all the time,” he says.
On July 13, for instance, the VA approved new regulations for post-traumatic stress disorder claims: Instead of submitting pages upon pages of documentation, veterans now must only provide basic information about the time and place of service during which a stress-inducing incident occurred.
“The fact that you don’t have to prove the incident that occurred—that’s a major, major breakthrough,” Vasquez tells SFR. “I don’t know that there’s a metaphor to describe what a huge deal it is.”
George, too, says the new rule greatly simplifies the process whereby veterans around the country can get treatment for PTSD.
“Especially the older veterans who couldn’t remember as well, it really helped them,” George says. But as with many such changes, he notes, “I’m having to spread that by word of mouth.”
Political involvement, too, can help: Last week, New Mexico’s 3rd District US Rep. Ben Ray Luján hosted two PTSD workshops in New Mexico.
“Recent rule changes that simplify the process of attaining help for PTSD will tremendously benefit the brave men and women who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other conflicts,” Luján writes in an emailed statement to SFR. “I look forward to continuing my work ensuring that New Mexico’s veterans receive the care and benefits they have earned.”
But veterans can be a politically popular cause, which sometimes obscures the need for real change.
“It’s very important that vets be viewed not as a political pawn,” Vasquez says, “but that we address their needs based on their needs, not the needs of the politicians or the bureaucracy.”