Monday, February 25, 2008

Veterans Harmed By Errors on DD214s

Cross-posted to Raising Kaine has posted a story, originally from the Buffalo News, of the plight of an increasing number of veterans who are finding their DD214s, the records of their military service, contain sometimes critical errors and omissions.

The story tells of close to 2,000 veterans whose records have been so poorly documented that they are losing access to veterans' services, compensation, and care.

Some highlights:

Christopher M. Simmance helped keep the peace as an American Soldier in the Middle East, but when he returned home and later suffered a breakdown, he was turned away from the VA hospital because the government didn't acknowledge his overseas duty.

Dana Cushing as a Marine served two tours of duty in Iraq and a third in east Africa, but when she returned home, she found herself labeled a "conscientious objector" and also was denied medical care by the government ...

The Army alone has a backlog of 1,890 veterans seeking corrections on their discharge papers, and some have been waiting for three years, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Many other veterans probably have faulty discharge papers but don't know it because they have not sought benefits ...

When [Simmance] returned home to Buffalo Niagara and sought help from the local Veterans Affairs office, he said he was told his discharge papers were not in order and he was ineligible for help. Simmance said he was turned down twice for treatment at the VA's Batavia residential facility for post-traumatic stress disorder ... he continues to wait for a corrected version of his discharge papers -- a wait that started seven months ago and shows no sign of ending soon ...

Errors are occurring more frequently on discharge papers, known as DD214 forms, because the work is often farmed out to civilians, according to Patrick W. Welch, director of Erie County's Department of Veterans Services.

"In the olden days, it was usually military records personnel who were processing you out. They were active duty military people. They had a better feel for what you were entitled to and they would ask questions," said Welch, a Vietnam veteran.

Civilians who never served in the armed forces, he said, are more likely to make mistakes ...

Military officials, contacted by The Buffalo News, said those leaving the armed forces should carefully check their records because they are in the best position to know if the papers are complete and accurate.

"That's not true. This is your very first DD214, so how do you know what to look for? On top of that, you don't know what the code numbers stand for. Unless you work with those codes daily, you don't know what they mean," said Ronal R. Bassham, a veterans advocate for United Auto Workers Region 9.

I'm sorry. I need to have it explained to me again why the private sector always does everything so much better than the public sector, even in specialized areas such as evaluation of military service. I've heard of problems like this from friends who work at Veterans Affairs, complaints not only about clueless civilians, but particularly about the temporary help that's brought in to take care of the overflow. The contractor is there, first and foremost, to make money. When employees don't have to worry about a profit motive they are more likely to take the time necessary to get the information right.

The story continues with accounts of veterans, needful of help for their service-related problems, being turned away or forced to burn through their assets while awaiting correction of their DD214s. Some of these veterans have ended up living in their cars or on the streets.

During World War II, when there were millions in the Armed Forces and millions being processed out at the same time, it seems that most of the records were fairly accurate despite the lack of computers and other modern amenities. There is no excuse in this computer age for months long delays and flagrant inaccuracies in record keeping.


J. Tyler Ballance said...

I have served in our Navy for twenty-two years and have also been a volunteer at VA hospitals.

I have never known anyone to be denied care based on a DD214.

For those unfamiliar, the DD214 is a form that you sign as you are leaving the service that documents your accomplishments. Who better to review this document than you?

The transition program that I attended gave us a checklist that included items to be sure went on our DD214, and I made sure that all the relevant data was on my form before I signed it.

Even if there is an error, this can always be worked around by showing medical records, evaluation copies or, for officers, fitness reports.

The folks who provide services for our Vets are mostly there because they really care for our veterans. Many could be making much more money elsewhere and others are unpaid volunteers.

If some errors were made, as indicated by the Buffalo story, then the real question should be, what steps were made to work for the veteran to get the error corrected. In every case that I know of, care was not denied, and when a doubt existed, then care was provided anyway.

The VA provided terminal care for my father, a WWII veteran. They never asked for his DD214. Based solely on his word that he was a veteran, he was admitted and given pain medication that made his final weeks on earth bearable. Much later in his stay at the hospital in Hampton, his military record was accessed and his status was confirmed.

The VA is a good organization who truly care about our Vets. They don't deserve to be smeared by the Press who are out to sensationalize a few supposed errors.

Catzmaw said...

This isn't a matter of sensationalizing the problem. Take a look at the thread on which was posted to this story and you will see that a number of people have horror stories to tell about their treatment, especially our more recent vets. Some of them describe months or even years of frustrating efforts to set their records straight so they can qualify for their benefits.

I'm not saying that the Veterans Administration does bad work on the whole, but the quality of care and administration is not the same across the board. You have the good fortune to be involved in the Hampton VA. That doesn't mean you'd find the same quality elsewhere. Some of the complaints I've heard about the VA in Washington, DC come from people who work there. They're the ones telling me about the contract workers, the temps, and the incomplete and inaccurate records. Rather than pretend the problem doesn't exist we should make sure the problem is resolved.

J. Tyler Ballance said...

Nobody is saying problems do not arise at the VA. However, I have never seen the VA simply refuse care for someone in need based on a DD214.

If there is no other documentation available, I can see why a bureaucrat or contractor might defer action until authorization is received from HQ, but I have never seen anything like the months or years of delay alluded to in the article.

We have to be careful not to argue illogically from the specific to the general. If you see a man hit by lightening, you cannot conclude that every time lightening strikes, a man is hit.

If a statistically small number of people report problems at the VA, it does not mean their problems are not real or valid, but we cannot use a small sample of people from news reports and conclude that there are significant problems with the VA system.

If you show-up with a medical record indicating a need for a particular type of care, you will get the care you need at the VA. If there is no evidence of injury or prior treatment in your records, then the VA must jump through the various administrative hoops to provide care, without subjecting the system to fraudulent claims. I think that it is the cautious behavior of some hospitals with regard to fraud prevention that is at the heart of these complaints, not the DD214, since conscientious staff can find ways to work with the veteran to get them the care they need.

By the way, expect to see a bunch of resentment over contractors from the GS workers, since many career GS folks resent the jobs being "outsourced" to the contractors.

In general, veterans get good care at VA hospitals. I am confident that, if given a polite summation of the problem, most VA staff, including contractors, will conscientiously address the problem.

Like any big organization, the VA may sometimes drop the ball, but if given a chance, at least in my experience, they will go the extra mile to make things right in favor of the veteran.

I encourage anyone who has some extra time to volunteer at their local VA hospital, or even your local community hospital. These places really are doing God's work and deserve our support. Go ahead and give it a try; there's nothing good on TV anyway.