Local Veterans Face Health Care Challenges

As Jim Curtis roams the ground of Tahoma National Cemetery, visiting the grave of an old Marine Corps friend, a helicopter hovers overhead.

Curtis, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said the noise is similar to the sounds of helicopters that frequently fly over his North Bend home – and reminds him of his time as a machine gunner during the Vietnam War .

“It looks like tiny things,” he said. “But it weighs on you.”

Noise is just one of the health issues Curtis faces as a disabled veteran. He also suffers from memory lapses and a tremor in his right hand caused by Parkinson’s disease, resulting from his prolonged exposure to Agent Orange.

Curtis has been a longtime advocate for the military, frequently hosting raffles and food donations to benefit veterans and active duty members. However, he has become more concerned about the challenges faced by veterans with disabilities.

Although the United States has made improvements to homelessness and employment issues for veterans, challenges remain in veterans’ health care. While nearly one in five Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD, only half seek treatment.

Suicide rates among veterans also increased between 2001 and 2018. In 2017, suicide rates among veterans were about 1.5 times higher than among non-veterans.

Rocky Martinez, commanding officer of Renton-Pickering Post 79 in Snoqualmie and an Iraq War veteran, said one of the biggest challenges in providing health care to veterans is the often long, confusing and bureaucratic process of submitting a disability claim to Veterans Affairs. (VA) health care services.

Not all veterans are eligible for care through the VA, as the conditions for veterans are not presumptive, and eligibility is based on veterans submitting a claim and proving that a disability or injury is related to their time in service.

“A lot of people don’t know where to turn,” Martinez said. “I think that’s where a lot of veterans get stuck. I think it’s a long process and they’re a little fed up.

While this process can be quick — the VA says the average claim takes about 150 days — it can also take years if the paperwork isn’t in order and can be problematic for those who need immediate care.

When a veteran has a medical condition that hasn’t been documented in their records, it can be difficult to tie it to their time in the military, said Dave Waggoner, Post 79 Legion Duty Officer and Vietnam veteran. He said this becomes especially true for veterans who don’t notice their health issues until they’re older.

“[Young veterans] have their whole lives ahead of them and have no idea that the injury they suffered while on guard duty is going to come back to haunt them,” he said. “They aren’t too concerned until they reach our age and they have a hard time tracing issues back to a service connection.”

When a claim is approved by the VA, veterans receive a disability rating, expressed as a percentage, which indicates the severity of the disability and the amount of compensation the veteran is entitled to.

Curtis said he started with a 20% disability rating, but through frequent doctor visits over a five-year period, he was upgraded to 100% – a process that was huge for his ability to treat his Parkinson’s disease, providing annual neurological assessment and medication.

“It’s a slow process and I haven’t gotten a lot of information from the VA,” he said. “It’s usually another veteran I talk to who knows what you need to do.”

Another challenge for veterans, particularly on the Eastside, is the lack of an outpatient clinic. In 2020, the VA closed its Bellevue Clinic, which was designed for small services, meaning that for Eastside veterans, the closest VA hospital is now in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle.

“It certainly had an impact. Many Eastside veterans relied on this clinic,” Martinez said. “It was much easier to get to the Bellevue Clinic than to drive to Seattle.”

Still, Martinez, Curtis, and Wagoner all praised the aspects of care provided by the VA. Wagoner specifically called out his efforts to get veterans vaccinated against COVID-19. But everyone had concerns about communication, especially for those who had just left the military.

Although there are transition officers tasked with helping those leaving the military reintegrate into society and apply for benefits, Martinez recalls returning from Iraq in 2003, receiving a letter stating that he was eligible for health services, but no one explained what that meant.

“I think communication sometimes fails. It’s not non-existent, it just needs to improve,” he said. “I haven’t had that transition agent, and that happens to some veterans, so they don’t know where to go.

This is a gap that several voluntary veterans service organizations, such as the American Legion Post and Veterans of Foreign Wars, have attempted to fill.

Together, Martinez and Wagoner are working to open a veterans service office in Issaquah by the end of January, which will work to connect Eastside veterans to available resources and help them file claims with the GOES.

“If we don’t help, we’re going to lose veterans to mental health issues, or they’re going to fall through the cracks and potentially become homeless,” Martinez said. “We need a place, and that’s why we created it.”

For Curtis, he worries that many veterans are unwilling to talk about their experiences and wonders if the delay in getting help could be contributing to rising suicide rates among veterans.

“A lot of older guys get so frustrated,” he said. “Every veteran should know that other veterans are their best resource.”

If you need veterans services, call Renton-Pickering American Post Legion 79 at 425-243-9498 and leave a message.

the Valley Record contacted the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs for comment.

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About Antoine L. Cassell

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