Disability compensation is not so simple for Vietnam veterans, families

Photo courtesy of Jerry Knouff, right, who flew with the Vietnamese Air Force in the Delta during his time in Vietnam.

Veterans, especially those who served in the Vietnam War, are signing up for disability compensation later in life due to lack of information about benefits after retiring, according to
veterans and their families.

By Naoko Branker

Kristal Wortham was raised by veterans on the East coast. Her mother volunteered to serve in the Army, and her father was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. After three tours during the war, he continued to serve for another 30 years as well as work for the government.

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 11.07.37 PMWortham’s father conducted activities to track the opposition in Vietnam, and doctors told her father these activities would change his psychological state, she said He was diagnosed with depression, she said.

In addition to the psychological changes, other health conditions would arise that would be directly connected to Agent Orange exposure, and Wortham said doctors told her father that there would be a series of health benchmarks he would reach in his lifetime.

Claims representatives from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs were contacted about associations between health conditions and Agent Orange exposure, but were unable to comment due to privacy restrictions for veterans’ health information.

According to a 2012 report titled “Veterans and Agent Orange,” there is a limited association between Agent Orange exposure and health conditions such as lung cancer, a condition Wortham’s father died of in 2011.

“People don’t know where to go.”

Veterans often have difficulty connecting with organizations for resources once they return from war, according to Wortham, who is the executive director of the D.C. branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The nonprofit works with active duty servicemen, women and veterans to get them help, and primarily serves those with mental illness. Wortham works extensively with veterans with mental health conditions helping them access resources, which is something her father had very little, she said.

Families tend to not understand why these resources are necessary to regaining a sense of normalcy, she said.

“A lot of times, veterans feel like their families don’t understand they’ve been traumatized, and that these different diagnoses take a lot of care and sensitivity training, and advocacy,” Wortham said.

Families are often unaware of aftercare for veterans, and veterans themselves are not aware of their options, she said. When veterans do submit applications, some have to wait frustrating amounts of time to receive disability compensation, she said.

Ron Startzel, 51, a Marine veteran who applied for disability compensation a few years ago, had no problems signing up, but he knows that his case is not typical.

“I’ve known people who have gone through, who’ve went through the process; stuff’s gotten done with their ratings and they’ve been perfectly fine, and then others had to go through months or years of trying to get what they feel they deserve,” Startzel said.

Startzel, Jerry Knouff and David Boyd, all of whom received disability compensation, were not at liberty to say what their specific disabilities were because of their current jobs, but Knouff and Boyd agreed that there should have been more information about disability compensation to Vietnam veterans sooner.

‘Nobody ever told us’

Knouff, 66, just recently started receiving 30 percent disability compensation. Like Startzel, Knouff, a retired Army aviator CW 2, had no problems with the system.

“My dad’s 92 and served in World War II, he didn’t sign up for the VA until he was 88, and he talked me into it so it was 40-something years from Vietnam,” Knouff said. “I just signed up last summer,” said Knouff.

He said he went down to Richmond, Virginia, to obtain his ID card and fill out the required paperwork and receive the necessary medical exams. The benefits have been valuable, Knouff said. Free prescriptions, as well as a bi-annual physical, come with his disability compensation.

One problem Knouff had with the system was that he did not know about it sooner.

“Last summer, July 3, was when I went [to sign up for disability compensation],” he said. “They didn’t tell us anything after Vietnam. They didn’t even ask us.”

It is common for veterans, especially those who served in Vietnam, to file for disability compensation decades after retirement, because of the lack of communication between the VA and service members returning home, according to Knouff.

Boyd, 68, is a retired lieutenant colonel who, like Knouff, did not know about disability compensation when he came home from Vietnam, and only knew about the possibility of applying after he retired from the Army..

“You go through these mandatory evaluations and at that point they rated my disability and I got a check. If they hadn’t given me that [evaluation], I wouldn’t have known anything about it,” Boyd said.

Wortham explained that while The National Alliance on Mental Illness does not specifically deal with compensation-related help, they provide other resources.

“What we try to do is at least bridge the gap to the appropriate services that are going to achieve whatever their particular objective is. That’s where we find where a lot of the grey
area is,” Wortham said.