Robert Smith serving with the Marines in 2009 at Al Asad air base in western Iraq. Courtesy of Robert Smith
Robert Smith serving with the Marines in 2009 at Al Asad air base in western Iraq. Courtesy of Robert Smith

Foon Rhee

Associate editor, editorial writer and Viewpoints editor

Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: Scandalous silence on veterans

By Foon Rhee

frhee@sacbee.com

January 25, 2016 05:01 AM

UPDATED January 25, 2016 02:46 PM

The scandalous problems at the VA are all solved – or so it would seem from how little attention they have received during the 10 presidential debates.

Robert Smith has noticed the silence from those who want to be our next commander in chief – and he wants you to know that the massive bureaucracy that is supposed to care for our nation’s veterans is far from fixed.

Smith, 29, born in Sacramento and a Sacramento High grad, joined the Marines in 2005 and served until 2011, including a nine-month tour at Al Asad air base in western Iraq, where he loaded ammunition onto V-22 Ospreys. He says he complained about pain in his feet and ankles, but was told they were minor sprains and given pills. Before receiving an honorable discharge, the medical check wasn’t that extensive, he says.

Back home, Smith used his GI Bill benefits to go to culinary school. In 2014, he started work as a cook, but on his feet most of the day, the pain flared up. When Smith sought treatment at the VA Medical Center at Mather, he says different doctors gave him varying diagnoses. “Just a jumble,” he says.

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Tara Ricks, a spokeswoman for the VA Northern California Health Care System, says it strives to provide the “best, most accurate treatment plan” for every veteran, but it sometimes takes time to find the right therapy.

Smith, who lives in Carmichael, also put in a claim for a service-related disability. It took a year to hear back, but that’s quicker than for many other veterans. Last April, he received his disability rating of 30 percent (10 percent for each knee, plus 10 percent for ringing in his ears).

He’s getting $407.75 a month in disability benefits, but that’s only about one-fourth of what he was making as a cook. Smith believes his disability rating should also include his feet and ankles, which would mean a bigger check.

In the fall of 2014, he was diagnosed with an avulsion fracture of his right ankle. Off and on the latter part of last year, he was unable to walk. The pain got so bad he stopped work Nov. 30, and soon after had to go to the emergency room, he says.

Smith is frustrated and angry, but also realizes that many veterans came home with more serious injuries. “I know people are dealing with a lot worse than me,” he says.

Next week, he starts a new office job with the state Department of Developmental Services. It means less painful standing, but it’s not what he wants to do. What he’d really like is to get his health back and return to the kitchen.

“I love cooking,” he told me. “I’m good at it.”

Smith’s story is achingly familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to the VA’s problems – most outrageously, veterans who died while waiting for health care, plus ridiculously long backlogs for disability claims. The scandals prompted congressional hearings, a change of leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs and a $16 billion emergency spending boost in 2014.

Despite some progress, an inspector general’s report last September found that the VA had 848,000 pending applications for health care, but that its record-keeping system is so flawed that it’s impossible to know how many died awaiting care or were still waiting. VA officials said this month that they’re chipping away at the application list, but it can’t come soon enough. The VA Northern California Health Care System says wait times have been slashed at Mather to an average of six days for primary care, seven days for specialty care and 1.5 days for mental health treatment.

The VA has also reduced the backlog of disability claims, which peaked in 2013 at 611,000 that were more than four months old. But it didn’t reach its goal of eliminating it by the end of 2015, and cutting it below 75,000 cases came at a price – a new $1.3 billion electronic processing system that has busted its budget. At the Oakland regional office, which serves veterans in the Sacramento region and Central Valley, the average time to complete claims was still more than seven months as of September.

And now there’s a national backlog of appeals of disability claims that has mushroomed to more than 400,000 cases, including Smith’s.

Clearly, there’s much more work to do to treat our veterans right.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is calling for carrying out the 2015 bipartisan law to prevent suicides among veterans, improving services for the increasing number of female veterans and weeding out predatory for-profit schools from the GI Bill, among other priorities.

Sarah Palin, of all people, has generated the most discussion recently about veterans in the campaign. Stumping for Donald Trump last week, she blamed President Barack Obama’s policies and post-traumatic stress for the domestic violence arrest of her eldest son, who served in Iraq.

During each presidential debate, advocates take to Twitter to admonish the candidates for not talking more about veterans’ needs. According to one count, the Republicans have mentioned veterans only 10 times combined in their six debates. (The Democrats are a little better, 21 mentions in four debates.)

Perhaps that will change in the GOP debate in Iowa on Thursday, the final one before the caucus next week. I’m not holding my breath.

The neglect is partly because the debate moderators aren’t asking directly about veterans. Still, when the candidates get a chance to talk about the military, the Republican contenders in particular are instead falling all over themselves to sound toughest on fighting terrorists.

If that leads to another war in the Middle East, that would mean more veterans. So the message, unintended or not, is that young Americans are valuable as “boots on the ground” but not so much when they return home.

None of the remaining presidential candidates has served in the military. If they don’t start showing more concern for veterans, that would be a scandal of its own.