On Veterans Day, we look at a major new investigation by journalist Aaron Glantz that questions the government’s commitment to soldiers struggling to re-enter civilian life. Called "Accuracy isn’t priority as VA battles disability claims backlog," the report reveals how thousands of veterans have been denied disability benefits as a result of errors by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Glantz tells the story of Navy veteran Hosea Roundtree, whose claim for disability compensation was denied by the VA despite Roundtree suffering flashbacks of a shelling he witnessed in Beirut while aboard a U.S. Navy ship in 1983. The VA has a duty to assist veterans in developing their facts and evidence to support their claims, but the department reprimanded one of its own employees for attempting to do just that for Roundtree. Jamie Fox lost her job in 2008 after she wrote a memo to her boss arguing that Roundtree’s disability benefits were being denied wrongfully. An internal VA document later showed the agency failed to perform its duty to assist in nearly 11,000 cases at the time, despite the VA acknowledging it makes mistakes on 14 percent of disability claims. We speak with Fox and Glantz, who is a reporter for the Bay Citizen, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. He is also the author of three books, most recently, "The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans." [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Sunday was Veterans Day, the federal holiday honoring U.S. men and women who’ve fought in the armed forces. President Obama marked the day by attending a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. He laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and later met with military families in the cemetery’s Section 60, where those killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. In his speech, President Obama emphasized the obligations Americans, and their government, have to veterans.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In this country, we take care of our own, especially our veterans who have served us so bravely and sacrificed so selflessly in our name. And we carry on knowing that our best days always lie ahead. On this day, we thank all of our veterans from all of our wars, not just for your service to this country, but for reminding us why America is and always will be the greatest nation on earth.
AMY GOODMAN: Although President Obama stressed the importance of supporting returning troops in his speech, veterans continue to face extremely high levels of unemployment, traumatic brain injury, PTSD and homelessness. Their unemployment rate is 11 percent, about 3 percent higher than the general population. Almost a quarter of recent veterans come home injured either physically or emotionally. More than 67,000 veterans are homeless. An estimated 18 veterans commit suicide every day.
Now, a major new investigation by journalist Aaron Glantz questions the government’s commitment to supporting soldiers struggling to re-enter civilian life. The headline, "Accuracy isn’t priority as VA battles disability claims backlog," reveals how thousands of veterans are being denied disability benefits as a result of errors by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In his article, Glantz writes about Navy veteran Hosea Roundtree, whose claim for disability compensation was denied by the VA despite Roundtree suffering flashbacks of a shelling he witnessed in Beirut while aboard a U.S. Navy ship in 1983. The VA has a duty to assist veterans in developing their facts and evidence to support their claims, but the department reprimanded one of its own employees for attempting to do just that for Roundtree. Jamie Fox lost her job in 2008 after she wrote a memo to her boss arguing Roundtree’s disability benefits were being denied wrongfully. An internal VA document later showed the agency failed to perform its duty to assist in nearly 11,000 cases at the time, despite the VA acknowledging it makes mistakes on 14 percent of disability claims.
Well, Jamie Fox joins us now from San Fransisco. She, herself, is a veteran of the U.S. Navy and is once again working for the VA. We’re also joined by Aaron Glantz, reporter for the Bay Citizen, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. You can see more of his work on baycitizen.org. He’s also author of three books, most recently, The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! The piece appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle this weekend. And before we talk about the specific case of Hosea and Jamie, Aaron, if you can put this in a broader context on this Veterans Day.
AARON GLANTZ: Yes, Amy. Across this country, there are nearly a million veterans who are sitting, waiting to find out if the VA will give them disability compensation for the wounds that they received in war. And this is a backlog of disability claims that has more than doubled under President Obama: when he took office, there were just under 400,000 veterans who were waiting; now there’s about 830,000 veterans who are waiting on their disability claims. And as we’ve previously reported at the Center for Investigative Reporting, these wait times are getting longer and longer. In cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, veterans are waiting over a year, on average, to get their claims resolved and get compensation for their wartime wounds.
And so, the question becomes, you know, why are there such egregious delays? And what we found in this more recent investigation is that these delays paradoxically exist because the VA is putting pressure on people like Jamie Fox to rush through quickly, and then they make a mistake, and then the veterans who are wrongfully denied enter an appeal. And so, we found that almost a third of the veterans who are waiting are actually waiting on appeal. And we found that the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, which adjudicates this, rules that the VA makes a mistake 73 percent of the time that they rule on a case.
AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us the story of Hosea Roundtree. In this video report accompanying your investigation, Aaron, he talks about why he filed his claim with the Veterans Affairs.
HOSEA ROUNDTREE: It’s not just for me, but it’s for every other vet that’s out there that’s suffering. It’s for every other vet that’s coming back home, that they’re going to see a difference. OK? I want—I want these vets coming back from overseas to get fair, better treatment.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain his case, Aaron.
AARON GLANTZ: Yeah, that’s a comment that he made to us recently on his decision to file a new disability claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs some six years after he filed his original claim and more than 20 years after he served in Beirut. Hosea was a cook on a Navy destroyer that shelled Beirut in 1983 after—or, actually, this was shortly before the Marine barracks were blown up that were in Beirut. And it’s one of America’s forgotten wars, you know, like the American servicemembers who fought in Grenada or Panama, these wars that were quick to start but then quickly forget the people who fought in them. He came back. He started to experience symptoms of PTSD. I spoke with his wife outside of Sacramento. She said he wasn’t the same after he got home.
He stayed in the Navy, and then, during the 1991 Gulf War, he served in the Persian Gulf. And that experience serving in war a second time caused—all of his experiences of watching people gunned down at the airport in Beirut from his Navy destroyer flooded back in, got layered over with these new wartime experiences in the Gulf, and he had a major breakdown. He lived homeless on the streets of Los Angeles for the better part a decade. When he wasn’t homeless, he was in jail. And then, finally, after this whole long experience of trauma that went on for some time, he ended up at a transitional housing program for homeless veterans in Los Angeles, and they helped him clean up, and he filed a disability claim with the VA. And this was in 2006. Then—you know, this is such a long odyssey—then, a year or two after that, finally, his claim landed Jamie Fox’s desk at the VA. And after all of this that he had gone through, it was slated for denial.
AMY GOODMAN: And Jamie, that’s where you come in. You are a Navy veteran yourself. You worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Explain what happened when Hosea Roundtree’s case came before you, what you tried to do.
JAMIE FOX: I actually received his case during a training class, because I was fairly new within the VBA. And we were instructed to go through the file and check for completeness and correctness. And I found something that was a questionable piece of evidence, and I had brought it to my supervisor, who—or trainer, who then told me to go speak with somebody. There was a—several events of guidance that I can’t remember exactly what those instructions were. But while I was waiting for a piece of evidence to come back from a third-party provider, I began to use his file to study from, because we were given study time. And that’s when I read through his entire file.
And I looked at the rating decision, and it said it could not verify that he was in combat. But because I was in the Navy, and he was in the Navy, and I just knew that, with all of his tours of duty and being out to sea and—that he had been recommended for chief, and—you know, and that’s not something that’s easily done. And reading through his detailed accounts of his stories, it just really piqued my curiosity. So, that’s when I got on the internet and just briefly looked at some internet sites and found that his ship that he had been on was in combat.
So I was still waiting for another piece of evidence from the first issue, which hadn’t arrived yet, and I proceeded to type up a letter, because I was going to be leaving for about three weeks to go away for training. And I walked his file over to one of my supervisors and asked him, you know, "What should I do with the pile?" And he said to leave it on my desk, that he would have somebody come pick it up. And when I came back, the file was still there. And I asked again, went and talked to the supervisor and said, "What should I do with the file?" because I didn’t—you know, I was still green; I needed to have somebody guide me through this. And he told me to take it to another supervisor, who’s been 30 years—over 30 years of experience, and he’s considered an expert in all rating board issues. And then I never saw the file again, until May.
AMY GOODMAN: And then what happened?
JAMIE FOX: Then, I was thinking about Mr. Roundtree, and I looked him up on the computer. There’s a computer program called Covers, and it tracks where the file goes, who has it and for how long. And when I looked at it, I noticed that my name had been missing from the middle of the file, showing that I did not have the file, but I had worked on the file. And I also noticed that the letter was still denial. So, a co-worker and I, named Ann Williams, we called it back, and when we called the file back—because we wanted to see if there had been any suspicious activity, because at that time there had been a lot of shredding incidences in—that had been going on in the VA, and with the intention that we were going to be bringing this to a supervisor. But the file was intercepted by someone, and then that led to another series of events.
AARON GLANTZ: Yeah, Amy, this whole situation, as you can see, there’s a lot of kind of small details. But, you know, basically what happened here is that Jamie was at the end of the food chain at the VA, the end of the assembly line looking over Hosea’s claim. And it had been slated for denial. And in her position, she was supposed to review the claim and then send out a letter saying either, you know, these are your benefits, and you’re due, you know, $10,000 or whatever the amount would be, or alternatively, you’re denied. And Hosea’s claim was slated for denial. And as she said, she went online, and she was able, pretty quickly, to find out that even though the initial determination was that he hadn’t engaged in combat, that it was all over the internet that his ship that he was on was in combat in 1983 off the coast of Beirut. And she mentioned it. She wrote this four-page memo to her supervisor saying, "Hey, maybe we should go back, and we should look at this claim again. Maybe the rating is wrong."
And, you know, after all of the kind of minor incidents that she’s describing, she was fired. And the stated—or she was given a termination letter, rather. And the stated reason for her dismissal in the termination letter was that she had spent all of this time going through this veteran Hosea Roundtree’s file, when it would have only taken her 10 or 15 minutes to deny him his benefits.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you, Jamie, were forced out.
JAMIE FOX: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: They gave you the choice of being fired or quitting?
JAMIE FOX: Correct.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you chose.
JAMIE FOX: Well, the person who gave me my termination letter, he recommended that I resign in lieu of termination, because, as he put it, I would never get another federal job again. And I really didn’t understand what was happening, because the day that I received my termination letter was the first time I had ever heard that I had done anything wrong. And so, I sat there and I begged him to look at his computer, because they accused me I had the file for a much longer time than I did. And they had accused me of not even—sending it to the file bank with pending charges and a bunch of other, you know, things surrounding the case. But nobody—nobody would. They just sent me on my way.
AMY GOODMAN: Aaron, talk about how this expands out to the country, with the number of claims that have been denied and appeals that have been made.
AARON GLANTZ: Yeah, well, you know, the Obama administration, when Secretary Shinseki, Secretary Eric Shinseki, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, former general, took office shortly after Obama’s inauguration, he made two big promises. One was that the backlog of veterans waiting on disability claims would be eliminated by 2015. And we’ve already discussed, there are more veterans—many more veterans waiting now than when Obama took office.
The other promise that he made was that the decisions that the VA made would be accurate, that by 2015, 98 percent, almost all, disability claims would be decided accurately. Yet, at this point right now, the VA—the VA acknowledges that it makes mistakes in 14 percent of cases. And we at the Center for Investigative Reporting, looked through all of the inspector general’s audits that had been done in the last year on different VA offices around the country. And we found that in these high-profile claims that the inspector general looks at for cases like traumatic brain injury, one of the signature injuries of the Iraq War, and the illnesses caused by the Vietnam-era defoliant, Agent Orange, that in these claims auditors found errors in 38, more than a third of cases. And as I mentioned earlier, this feeds into the delays that veterans face, because people like Hosea, when they are wrongfully denied, they come back later, and they file a new claim, and they say, "Hey, I want this revisited. I want this resolved on appeal."
And so, one of the things that was so troubling to me, as a reporter, in Jamie’s story, when I read through all the depositions in a wrongful termination suit that she later filed, was that the VA said that—in fact, the director of Oakland office at the time, Lynn Flint, said it didn’t matter whether the rating decision that was made in Roundtree’s case was right or wrong, because he could always come back later and appeal it if it was a wrongful denial, that she should have just sent out the denial letter. And, you know, it really gives you an idea of how these mistakes are made and why there are so many veterans who are still waiting for their benefits.
AMY GOODMAN: Jamie, you met Hosea not so long ago for the first time. Is that right? What was that like?
JAMIE FOX: Well, he had been a big part of my life for so long, just as a name in his file. And, you know, I always wondered who this person was, and I always wondered if he had—what he had actually received. Did he get a denial, or did he get an award? Did he appeal it? So, out of that curiosity, a friend had told me that she had seen him on Facebook. And so I looked, and it showed that he was a cook up in Sacramento VA Medical Center. And I looked on my work directory and found him, and I called him in the kitchen. And he answered the phone, and we exchanged some information to make sure—you know, I wanted to make sure that was who he was. And then we later called each other on the telephone and spoke. And we just hit it off.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Jamie Fox, U.S. Navy veteran, works now back at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Aaron Glantz for your reporting for the Bay Citizen, part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Your latest piece called "Accuracy isn’t priority as VA battles disability claims backlog." This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.