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Vietnam War veterans apply for benefits

Vietnam Veterans Harvey Fields, wearing hat, and Richard

Vietnam Veterans Harvey Fields, wearing hat, and Richard Whitmarsh speaks about their time in Vietnam at the Mental Health Association. (June 14, 2012) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Harvey Fields came home from Vietnam after seeing the worst of war up close. A survivor of the 28-day battle for Hue -- in which 216 Americans were killed during the 1968 Tet Offensive -- Fields struggled with nightmares, uncontrolled anger and other symptoms now known as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Fields, 62, drifted from job to job after returning to Hempstead in 1970. His wife eventually left him, he said, and took their children with her. He said he used heroin to help himself sleep.

As hard as his life became, Fields went decades without receiving financial support from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the federal agency charged with helping service members cope with their return to civilian life.

Fields is among a large number of Vietnam War vets who never applied for federally-funded disability or other benefits. He is also among a group whose members are now applying for and receiving those benefits, decades after the war's end.

Of the 7.4 million Vietnam-era veterans living today, only 1.16 million -- 15.7 percent -- receive VA disability benefits. That is far lower than the 44.3 percent of Iraq or Afghanistan War veterans receiving payments or awaiting claims.

"To be honest, I didn't want to be bothered with talking about what I went through over there," said Fields, who handled gravely wounded soldiers while serving in a medical unit, and who wept several times during a 20-minute interview. "I had a lot of rage in me when I came back."


Low claims by Vietnam vets

Veterans advocates list several reasons for low disability claims by Vietnam veterans. They say many draftees left the military so embittered they wanted nothing to do with the VA. Some negatively associated disability benefits with government handouts. And the threat of stigma discouraged many from filing claims for psychological disabilities.

Veterans advocates say the application process for VA benefits is convoluted, and that clumsy and inadequate outreach efforts by the department fail to persuade veterans to make use of VA assistance that could smooth their re-entry into civilian life.

"We've been [complaining] about doing better outreach for years," said John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America, a nonprofit based in Silver Spring, Md. "People don't have a clue what they are entitled to."

Veterans are entitled to monthly compensation payments from the VA for disabilities resulting from an "injury, disease or event in military service." Single veterans without children receive $2,769 per month if they are 100 percent disabled.

Ralph Bratch, a Florida lawyer and Army Reserve major who handles VA benefits claims, said applicants must document when and how they were hurt, and where they were treated. But because the military is only now building a system for sharing of health records with the VA, veterans have long had to track down proof of events that happened on chaotic battlefields decades earlier.

"The older these veterans are, the more they must rely on a flawed system, so proving things happened can be difficult," Bratch said. "And proving their case is just the beginning of their nightmare."

Oyster Bay native Richard Whitmarsh escaped serious physical injury during his time in Vietnam. But he was never the same after surviving a deadly Viet Cong attack on his convoy and coming home in 1971.

He said he spent years confined to the former Kings Park and Pilgrim State psychiatric centers, and now lives in a Hempstead adult foster care home. Until last month, a Social Security check was all Whitmarsh had.


Finally gets benefits

Whitmarsh, 64, learned two years ago he was eligible for about $2,800 a month in VA benefits. A Mental Health Association of Nassau program director put him in touch with a claims expert employed by The Military Order of the Purple Heart, a Virginia-based foundation that assists wounded veterans. Whitmarsh's 100 percent VA disability claim was approved last month.

The same claims expert, Richard Gales, also handled a filing for Fields, who now gets a 70 percent monthly payment, plus about $24,000 in retroactive benefits.

"I didn't know who to see or who to talk to," Whitmarsh said of his initial failure to claim a disability. "At least now, I'll have something in the bank for myself."

He said he has lived in public institutions or group homes for most of the past four decades. "Maybe I'll get a nice room of my own," he said.