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Bureaucratic discharge

Wyoming veterans face difficult system to gain VA benefits

'Nobody told me. There is no way I wouldn’t have put in for benefits had I known.'

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Don Browning

Don Browning stands for a portrait Thursday outside his home in Casper. Browning received a medical discharge from the Navy and a 100 percent disability rating in 1964 after a nine-month bout of tuberculosis, but he did not receive Veterans Affairs disability benefits until 2006 due to incomplete paperwork. He is now seeking unpaid back benefits that could total more than $750,000. 

The fear reminded Don Browning of that long-ago warning shot at sea, when his destroyer ventured into Chinese waters.

As a boiler man on the USS Harry E. Hubbard, he never experienced combat. The memory of that shot, however, remains vivid despite the 50 years that have passed since his retirement from the service.

Browning saw the shores of Japan, the Philippines and China but came back to his home in Casper in 1964.

His stint in the Navy was cut short by a nine-month battle with tuberculosis in Veterans Affairs hospitals in Oakland, San Diego and eventually Denver. The stay led to a medical discharge in April 1964 and a 100 percent disability rating from the VA.

Although Browning was being treated by the VA in its facilities, he never received a key warning shot from the department. He needed to file paperwork for veteran’s disability compensation with the Veterans Benefits Administration, one of three components of the VA, at the time of his discharge in 1964.

Browning says the VA never advised him that he needed to complete the paperwork to receive disability compensation. Agency officials counter that Browning signed away his right to the compensation with a document they now can't find.

As a result, Browning is now in the midst of an appeal before the Board of Veterans Appeals in Washington, D.C. The back compensation Browning seeks could total more than $750,000 by conservative estimates from case workers in the state.

The VA granted Browning compensation for his illness beginning in 2006. Since then he’s been fighting for the retroactive compensation he says he’s owed for the years prior to that decision.

“The people in D.C. said they couldn’t believe I hadn’t started earlier, but they just said ignorance is no excuse,” Browning said. “Nobody told me. There is no way I wouldn’t have put in for benefits had I known.”

Browning’s situation isn’t uncommon.

Larry Barttelbort, director of the Wyoming Veterans Commission, said his department’s service workers still meet with World War II veterans to help them file hearing loss claims with the VA for damage incurred 70 years ago.

Veterans leaving their respective branches of the military often don’t understand the filing requirements of the VA.

“One of the problems that has always been inherent in this system is when you’re in uniform and you transition to being a veteran, you think there will be people that will open the door, sit you down and help you with your paperwork,” Barttelbort said. “That’s not the case.”

For a veteran who misses portions of his initial paperwork, filing a claim is more difficult. To win a compensation grant from the VA, claims must establish that the veteran’s illness or injury was caused by military service, that the veteran is currently diagnosed with the illness or injury and that there is a link between the two diagnoses.

The VA uses military medical records to establish the cause of injuries. Those without the proper documents are often denied.

Dwight Null, service officer at the Wyoming Department of the American Legion, said he deals with approximately five veterans' appeals per month. Often appeals occur when veterans attempt to change the formal date of their claim.

“Anytime a veteran files a claim after they’ve been out of the service for multiple years and they’re trying to go back and claim something that happened in the military, it’s hard,” Null said. “If they don’t have good evidence and documentation of what happened in their military records, it’s hard to prove anything at all. “

Appealing a decision from the VA sends the claim for a second look at regional VA centers. If that preliminary appeal fails, veterans can push their cause to the Board of Veteran’s Appeals, a national administrative tribunal, where Browning’s claim is currently awaiting review.

“My claim originally, they denied it,” Browning said. “They pretty much told me you’re dead in the water. Then a guy from Washington, D.C. called me and said, 'You’re a veteran that’s been given 100 percent disability.' That’s not right. You take your claim to the highest level you can go.”

The highest level most claims reach is the Board of Veterans Appeals.

But the board is often unfriendly to those claims. The board rejects 28.4 percent of the claims it hears and remands 45.8 percent, sending them back to the VA regional centers that have already denied them, according to VA statistics.

“The VA does do some good work,” said Wyoming Veterans Commission program manager Bob Craft. “In some cases, some of that good work is a denial based upon the lack of evidence. That denial can be appealed to the board, and if it’s based upon the evidence, the board has no authority to overturn that decision.”

Once in the appeals stage, claim processing can take up to five years.

Craft said most service officers recognize the application process as one of the most complicated in the federal government. For veterans trying to avoid any setbacks, the key is to start early and get the help of an accredited service officer, he said.

“In almost every case, a knowledgeable service officer can avoid the appeal,” Craft said. “That’s really the goal, to get a favorable decision as quickly as they can rather than going through an appeal that could take years of submitting documents and evidence with no guarantee that the decision will be favorable in the long run.”

Maintaining accurate medical records while in military service is another key to getting the proper benefits upon entering life as a veteran, he said.

Veterans exiting the service today have a wealth of resources in Wyoming. The state has more than seven service officers in locations around the state to assist in the claims process.

Veterans can contact the Wyoming Veterans Commission to schedule personal appointments with a service officer and often receive a briefing on succeeding as a veteran in Wyoming upon leaving service.

Barttelbort said veterans must realize that they have to take the initiative and seek help with the VA process after leaving the service.

“It’s really kind of a sad statement on the whole system,” Barttelbort said. “You have to say ‘Mother, may I?’ when all of this happened to you as a result of service. How can you expect someone who’s that sick to basically file a lawsuit against the government?”

Browning’s dispute continues over the lack of a document that should have been signed in the 1960s. His partial victory in 2006 left him still fighting with the government he once fought for.

“I’ve just been told no matter what someone says to you, don’t quit,” Browning said. “When I really thought about it, I said, 'What is it going to hurt?' I’m going to see what I come up with. I just hope it works out and helps me and other veterans.”

Reach general assignment reporter Trevor Graff at 307-266-0639 or Follow him on Twitter @TrevGraff.


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