Giving Back to Vets of All Ages

(From the AARP Magazine, May/June 2010 issue)

The true cost of American wars is much higher than what is spent in Supplemental Appropriations each year. It is also the cost of permanent medical care for the troops who are sent overseas to kill and who come home maimed in body and mind–and their loved ones. Over the years Congress has passed bills granting veterans generous benefits, but it doesn’t publicize them, and it doesn’t always make them easy to get, either–Dave

Last Memorial Day, Sue Christensen had a revelation. A retired nurse administrator, Christensen, then 83, was laying a wreath at the veterans’ monument in East Norriton, Pennsylvania, when she heard a speaker at the remembrance ceremony say that many vets suffer lingering problems from their wartime service—and don’t realize they could receive help from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). “It suddenly hit me,” recalls Christensen. “For 57 years I’ve suffered from panic attacks. Could it be from my time in the Navy?”

After the ceremony she approached the speaker, John Nowak, who works with the Montgomery County Office of Veterans Affairs in suburban Philadelphia. She explained that she had been a Navy nurse in a plastic surgery clinic at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, during the Korean War. Her duties included patching up the disfigured faces of young Marines who had just returned from the front. Did he think that this experience could account for her suffering?

Nowak suggested she visit his office, where she met with the director of veterans’ services, who referred her to a counselor at the VA Medical Center in nearby Coatesville, Pennsylvania. There, she was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and given a 30 percent disability rating, a disability-compensation payment of nearly $5,000 a year, and free psychological counseling.

Thanks to this support, the veteran nurse has begun to heal. “I’m already doing much better,” she says. “I finally feel like a full person.”

Christensen is one of 23 million veterans in the United States today, some 8 million of whom receive VA benefits. But congressional sources and critics say that many other deserving veterans are not availing themselves of assistance. Some, like Christensen, simply don’t know they are eligible for benefits. “It never occurred to me that the VA could do anything for me,” she says, noting she had never served in a war zone.

As Christensen learned to her advantage, Congress has expanded veterans’ benefits—including disability compensation, pensions, and health care—over the past two decades and has eased eligibility standards. This is a vitally important development. For many veterans, VA benefits could mean the difference between a life of abject poverty or a secure old age. For others it can mean the difference between suffering from an undiagnosed service-related illness or receiving treatment from a specialist in war trauma…

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