By Robert J. Hansen | OBSERVER Staff Writer
More than 16 million Americans have served their country in the military and more than $130 billion annually goes towards veterans disability benefits.
But not all veterans receive prompt and proper care, particularly Black veterans.
Sgt. George Ball, 69, spent 18 years in the military, four with the Marines and 14 in the Army, serving in Saudi Arabia from 1990-1992.
His first injury happened while training in 1989. For military veterans to receive disability benefits, they must be what’s called “service connected.” Veterans receive service-connected ratings based on their medical challenges. The more serious the illness or injury, the higher the rating, which is determined by the Department of Veterans Affairs. A veteran must be 100% service connected to earn full disability benefits. Injuries qualify injured veterans by increments of as little as 10% to become 100% “connected” and it isn’t until they have several physical or psychological health issues that a veteran will be deemed “fully connected” and receive all of their benefits.
Ball, who retired from service in 1994, said it took from 1995 to 2021 for him to become fully service connected, and that only after he added PTSD, which counted 20% towards his service connection, to his list of maladies.
In 2001, Ball was coaching youth basketball and after practices he found himself depressed. He began having trouble sleeping. He went to the VA, which sent him to four therapists, who diagnosed Ball with post-traumatic stress disorder. Ball said he was then sent to a four-week treatment program in Menlo Park. In that program, he said, were only eight Gulf War veterans; the other 30 or so had served in Vietnam. Ball was surprised and concerned to see veterans at that age still going through programs to receive their disability benefits.
“I went to that class and I’m thinking wow, I didn’t even know these guys were still around,” Ball said.
He finished the program, but when he applied for benefits he was denied. Work didn’t allow him the time to complete the very involved appeals process, which includes a statement declaring his disability and more doctor visits.
Ball retired and moved to Elk Grove in 2015. Finally, he had time to file a supplemental claim. He then had to talk to a VA representative who told Ball he needed to show why he “thought” he had PTSD.
“I wrote a statement of what happened to me when I was in the Marine Corps and what happened to me when I was in the Army,” Ball said.
Ball then, at last, received his full service connection in 2021.
The Veterans Benefits Administration provided more than $112 billion in disability benefits to about 5.4 million veterans and their families in 2022, according to the GAO.
The VA has faced long-standing challenges managing claims and has been on GAO’s high-risk list since 2003.
The GAO analyzed VA disability compensation from 2010 through 2020 and found that Black veterans had the lowest approval rates among all racial and ethnic groups – 61% versus 75% for white veterans.
According to the GAO, it made three recommendations to VA, including developing a plan to address limitations with its race and ethnicity data and to conduct a comprehensive assessment of disability compensation to identify the root causes that could contribute to racial and ethnic disparities.
Sgt. Maj. Nichole James – a Sacramento native who is deputy executive director for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Field Operations Academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Georgia – said the process to receive benefits is “long.”
“First you have to state your claim and then the Veterans Administration schedules you for a number of medical appointments to address the issues,” James said.
James recommended service members go through the Veterans of Foreign Wars, an organization that aims to speed rehabilitation of disabled and needy veterans, to get their disability benefits. That’s what she did.
“They actually helped me with my claim,” James said.
On Aug. 10, 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Honoring Our PACT Act into law. It expanded the VA health care treatment and benefits to veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances. Since it took effect, the VA has delivered more than $1.4 billion in benefits to veterans. The act expanded and extended eligibility for VA health care to veterans with toxic exposures and veterans who served in Vietnam, the Gulf War, and post-9/11.
The PACT Act also requires the VA to provide a toxic exposure screening to every veteran enrolled in VA health and helps improve research, staff education and treatment related to toxic exposures.
James, a disabled Iraq combat veteran, said the PACT Act helped her get treatment for issues she had and was unaware of that were related to her service in Iraq. She said she filed a claim this year based on the PACT Act that helped her get treatment for medical issues she has had for roughly 20 years.
“What’s amazing about that, all of the health issues I’ve been having are related to [serving] and I never knew,” James said.
James attributes the diagnosis of several health issues to the PACT Act. She hopes that her fellow veterans get the proper care they need and deserve.
“I had no idea,” James said.
More than 665,000 veterans have applied for PACT Act-related benefits. Over 3.9 million veterans have received new toxic exposure screenings, and more than 287,000 veterans have enrolled in VA health care.
Free Dinner For Veterans
Pleasant Hill Christian Praise Center hosts a free dinner for veterans, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11.
Pastor David James, who is sponsoring the dinner, is Sgt. Maj. Nichole James’ father.
Pastor James said the dinner is a thank-you to his daughter and all veterans for their service. He said it is free to all, including unhoused people.
“There is plenty for everybody,” Pastor James said. “Anybody can eat. We don’t turn away anybody.”
The center is at 3612 16th Ave. in Sacramento.