I hate talking about my weaknesses. I like to focus on what I can change, and the future. I hate dwelling on the things I can do little to nothing about. It’s impossible to talk about my disabilities without feeling just a little bit helpless, and I absolutely despise both the pity and ridicule talking about such things brings; people either feel sorry for you, or think it’s a weapon to be used to knock you down.
But I need to write about this somewhere, so there is at least a record of what I have went through at this point in my life. If I died tomorrow in some stupid car wreck, no one would know this aspect of my life very well because I rarely go into detail about it.
Yesterday I received two letters from the Department of Veterans Affairs:
The first letter was a record of my current disability status, intended to be shown when applying for benefits like housing entitlements and reduced state park memberships. At the top of the letter, in bold, are printed the words, “America is Grateful to You for Your Service“. The letter indicates I am 60% disabled and received an honorable discharge from the US Army on January 2005. They send this letter to me every year. I’ve been 60% disabled since 2005.
The second letter is a response to a benefits claim for increased medical compensation, filed in April 24th, 2012 (yes, almost a year ago). This letter is a rejection of my claim and denial of increased benefits award.
If you were to read this letter you would clearly understand the VA has a funny way of doing math on its calculations, and this is where it betrays veterans like me.
In truth, I am actually 80% disabled on paper. The breakdown is as follows,
Medical Description Percent Assigned
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): 30%
Chronic levator scapula, trapezius strain 20%
with cervical spine strain.
Hemorrhoids with anal fissure 20%
Tension headaches transforming into 0%
However, the VA claim examiner writes in the letter that the VA does not have GERD, “specifically listed in the rating schedule; therefore it is rated analogous to a disability in which not only the functions affected, but anatomical localization and symptoms, are closed related.”
(GERD, for those unaware, is a new term for irritable bowels disease but apparently the VA also lumps in things like acid reflex, panic attacks and insomnia into it since the examiners never put these problems into their own category).
In plain English, the examiner says the VA does not officially recognize GERD when it comes to calculating monetary payments in an award; therefore, for purposes of calculating how disabled I am when making monthly disability payments, I only receive a sliver of the 30% disability rating because it is rated the same as a similar condition the VA does recognize. But I am not told what condition is being used to supplant my GERD rating. Doing the math myself I have figured out that my 30% GERD rating is instead being calculated as a 10% rating.
You will also note that I have migraines listed as a disability, but I receive 0% disability rating for it. The reason is because I am not paralyzed to a bed every day by the migraines. I am in a state of perpetual migraines, but because I have learned to just deal with it and carry on with my life, the VA doesn’t see it as disabling. Bear in mind, “deal with it” means I sometimes drive with one eye closed because the other has become so photosensitive I can’t open it when it’s very sunny out, and I sometimes am forced to put a blanket over my head and take a nap during the day because the migraine has become so severe I can’t open either of eyes at all without extraordinary, blinding pain. But because this extreme blinding situation only happens a few times a month, rather than every day, 0% disabling is what the VA examiner has decided to set it as.
As for my other injuries, the levator scapula / cervical spine thing is my shoulder and neck. I don’t have full freedom of motion on my left shoulder anymore, and when I move it, it sounds like the bones are literally grinding against each other. As far as I can tell it is a consequence of having been slammed around a lot during training, fights and misc. other events that took place during my career as a grunt. I won’t lie; I’ve taken some pretty hard hits in my life, and I’ve slept in a lot of uncomfortable ditches. I’m not surprised that my shoulder and neck are fucked up.
Consequently, my migraines may or may not actually be due to the pressure on my neck stemming from this injury, and no treatment has ever been attempted for it.
Now we get to the embarrassing parts, but they are real. I urinate very frequently. Even during the night I am constantly awaken by the need to pee. The hemorrhoids bleed and are extraordinarily painful, and are not made any better since the GERD issue often results in diarrhea for no apparent reason that can last for several hours (to the point I become dehydrated and need to consume enormous amounts of water for the entire ‘event’), which constantly exposes the hemorrhoids to stomach acids; which is how the hemorrhoids came to be in the first place. My civilian outpatient clinic doctor has made three or four referrals for me to undergo surgery to have the hemorrhoids removed, but the VA employed surgeons never want to do it because “it’ll heal on its own” and never schedule the appointment for surgery.
Furthermore, the GERD issue results in occasional panic attacks, and is the actual reason I was discharged from the Army, though the VA examiners keep passing it off as “heart burn” despite protests and my military medical records having multiple documented cases where I was admitted for panic attacks. Bear in mind, technically this is PTSD stuff but the VA doesn’t list PTSD as a disability for me because I don’t experience flashbacks or hallucinations. My panic attacks are a purely physiological condition.
The first time it happened, I thought I was having a heart attack and whenever my heart rate increased from then on, it would happen again and again. The muscles around my chest tighten and prevent me from breathing. During the last months of my military career, I could not jog without the panic attack happening. I am quite sure about what is transpiring because before the Army released me, they made me go through a battery of tests, including being forced to run with a monitoring device on my chest while I had a panic attack. They originally thought it might be a heart condition but it’s really just my body trying to suffocate me for no apparent reason.
Furthermore I have muscle weakness episodes, such as where my legs just don’t want to fucking work. Yes, I have had a few rare occasions where I literally cannot walk; the legs feel like they are absolutely physically exhausted. It has happened to other parts of my body, such as my arms and lower back. It has been a few years since that happened and I have come to the belief it is a primarily psychological thing, or at least it depends greatly on my mood. The last time it happened was after a particularly bad breakup with an ex-girlfriend that left me psychologically devastated due to the circumstances of it. I won’t get into the details, but the experience taught me that I cannot allow myself to become depressed because my body will respond in kind. If I feel like giving up on life, my body will, too. Again, this is something the VA does not include in my disability rating because it doesn’t affect me all the time. I’m basically punished for being able to manage my condition most of the time. Still, I do have constant muscle pains, but they are more of the “tender” kind of pains. I feel exhausted all the time.
The point, really, is that I cannot allow myself to become depressed. This has been a source of tension in my personal and romantic relationships. I tend to remove myself from anything I know is “unnecessary stress”, and I don’t even want to entertain the thought of petty things. As a soldier I learned to disassociate my personal feelings and emotional garbage from a situation, and I rely upon this skill every day. If I can’t find a solution for a problem, I put it to the back of my mind and focus on what I can change. I become emotionally disengaged from situations that might put me into a danger zone, and that is how I endure, often at the cost of personal relationships because the other person believes I don’t care because I don’t want to engage in “heart-to-heart” chick flick moments that disturb my center. I can get mad, and that can fuel me, but depression will be the death of me.
The documents I received clearly show that the VA examiner has found a way to reduce my disability claim as much as possible to deny my increased compensation amount. But here is the reality of what all these conditions together actually mean in my day to day life:
1) I suppose it is important to point out that I have the same symptoms as Gulf War Symptom, though I personally believe my issues started after I received my 2nd anthrax vaccination. That is when I started noticing shots of pain in my chest, with the exception of my shoulder and knee pain (which I don’t receive disability for either), it quickly advanced into this host of symptoms. I believe most of my symptoms are a consequence of an auto-immune disorder triggered by the vaccine. Nevertheless, the VA does not recognize Gulf War Syndrome as something a soldier from my generation might suffer from, so I do not receive any benefits related to that.
My everyday existence is pain and discomfort. I don’t remember what it feels like to be “normal”; I just know that my body does not feel “normal” and healthy anymore.
I can’t work a regular job. Never mind that no employer is ever going to give me enough sick days to make employability workable, because every month I will have a few events require me to just lay in bed until the symptoms go away on their own. Some employers don’t even offer sick days, period. In a hypothetical situation where I was able to just take a break from work every day, there is the problem of my co-workers and their uneducated and unnecessary opinions. My last job had nosy co-workers complaining that I was taking too many bathroom breaks and it wasn’t fair to them, and my manager told me I had to either resign or be fired, because too many bathroom breaks was causing “trouble” for her. I kid you not, this is how my employment with the IRS ended. An attempt to explain my GERD issues went into one ear and out the other. She had never heard of it before, and as far as she was concerned I looked healthy, so I was just making up excuses. The problem with a federal job is if you do get fired from one, you can never again apply to work a government job or apply for a government contract. Because I have a lot of experience with federal appeals processes, I decided to just resign rather than have to spend years trying to fight an unfair and illegal firing.
2) I use a variety of meditation techniques to manage my condition. The pain killers the VA prescribes me are addictive, and I only use them when I really can’t handle the pain anymore, like those crushing migraine days where I can’t open my eyes. So during the first year I was out of the Army I mastered these techniques so I could manage the condition and not be a debilitative. The methods are broken down as follows,
a) When I have a “panic attack”, I can enter a trance within a few seconds that 90% of the time allows me to focus on the muscles in my chest and relax the tightening grip individually. Entering the trance requires a series of controlled breaths. This method doesn’t work all the time, which is a frustrating experience because it reminds me there is a force at work in my body I cannot fully control, and I hate that.
b) I can “shoot out” pain. This is a breathing technique I learned in the martial arts, and most experienced martial artists know the technique. You breath out and focus on the pain “leaving” your body. I don’t know the exact science on how it works, but it does, though particularly nasty pain (like migraines) tends to require a lot of micromanaging of “shooting” the pain out, though I have gotten so used to it I do it out of habit now.
c) I am nearly always performing a subtle “walking meditation”. My breaths are deeper and longer than normal. The tip of my tongue is always resting on the roof of my mouth, which is a supposed pressure point area. I forget the name of the meditation, but it comes from Kundalini Yoga. It gives me a lot of clarity and ability to manage my emotions in most situations, and I’m generally in a state of mindful peace until my breathing cycles are interrupted, such as while talking.
For someone who is Agnostic and not particularly religious, I have become a rather adapt practitioner of meditation in order to manage my condition. My symptoms do not go away; I merely manage them, but I cannot manage them in a normal working situation, such as needing to sit at a desk for a specific amount of time on a particular day to day schedule. This is less to do with me and more because of the structure of the work environment. I need to use the bathroom frequently, and I need to be able to rest when I need to. I need to have some control over the level of stress in the setting. My needs don’t fit in the typical office setting. I need to be my own boss and set my own rules.
I have become adept enough that, for a short period of time, I can engage in medium difficulty exercise workouts. For example, I can jog, and throw around a few martial art kicks. HOWEVER engaging in this behavior results in a few warning signs that alert me to when I’m reaching my “danger” zones; my acid reflex begins acting up. It sometimes gets caught into my lungs, resulting in some pretty severe coughing (you would think I had lung cancer, and in fact I thought I did until I had evaluations that determined it was acid reflex). If I persist despite this warning, I will suffer a panic attack I may or may not be able to cancel using the breathing exercises.
I go through periods of time where I try to work out and just suffer the consequences. It’s mainly because I get fat if I don’t work out (a consequence of going from a very active military lifestyle, to the couch potato civilian lifestyle), even if I eat little, and I hate being fat. Right now I’m fat because I got sick and tired of the constant coughing and panic attacks. I basically have to choose between being fat or having people confuse me for a chain smoker.
It became clear to me during the first year of my discharge that I needed an occupation where I had freedom to create my own work schedule or delegate duties I was physically unable to do to someone else until a ‘disabling episode’ (like an eye shutting migraine) was over. This is not a job that Wal-Mart or McDonalds will give me. Even in creative industries like the film world, it’s not something you can do during a shoot unless you’re the producer. That is one of the reasons why I settled on wanting to create my own film studio. I can focus on the planning of the shoot — which I do very well — and delegate to others for the production if I’m unable to direct the shoot myself.
Sadly the VA employees assigned to me not see things my way. The doctor who examined me told me that frequent urination is not preventing me from maintaining employment, because he believes I can just go to the bathroom whenever I want to. I think he has confused the freedoms allotted by his occupation with the freedoms allotted by other occupations, and cannot relate to the experiences of others. I have already tried this song and dance working as a security guard, a sales associate / cashier in a department store and an IRS processor. None of these occupations afforded me a lot of freedom to use the bathroom as much as I needed to, and it caused problems, especially when I had a chronic migraine episode or a severe diarrhea case. It is embarrassing to say, but it is true. And never-mind that the migraines and panic attacks are really the hardest thing to manage. When that 10% occurrence panic attack happens while I’m working, I am completely fucked because I have to lay down until it ends, because I cannot walk. I once had it happen to me while I was driving and I almost got into a wreck.
The worst thing about this recent denial for increased compensation is it comes after my Vocational Rehabilitation officer rejected my self-employment plan. He did so without looking at my business plan, and the three year financial projections. He refused to approve my plan because I did not have a bank loan; which is NOT actually part of the self-employment plan route for Chapter 31 (if you don’t believe me, feel free to look up the federal regulations yourself). I came to him requesting $24,000 worth of video production and editing equipment so I could scale my company and turn it into a source of viable employment for myself, and that is what the self-employment plan is for. Instead, he said I was ineligible because “your business exists already” and while that is true, because it is not a source of viable employment yet (as in, I cannot afford to pay myself a salary) I should be allowed to use my benefits to scale the business. Furthermore, when I said I would appeal he told me that “no one from this department will approve you”, which indicates I will not get a fair appeal. I have raised hell about this, filing complaints with the Patent’s Advocate and the VA’s Inspector General office, and included a taped record of our conversation that proves I am not getting a fair evaluation. But will this actually make a difference? Probably not.
There are lot of reports about how VA employees are falsifying documents and sabotaging veterans so these employees can meet their quotas and keep their jobs. Even on the VA’s Inspector General website you can find a list of cases of embezzlement, fraud and waste.
I feel there is something inherently and fundamentally broken about the VA culture that will probably only be cured by an absolute cleansing of the ranks. They would need to fire everyone and draft new regulations, from the top to the bottom. They would need to reboot the system and start over from scratch to address the problems. And because that will never happen in our broken political system where they can’t even agree on something as simplistic as budget cuts to prevent the country from going into economic collapse, there is no way the VA will get fixed.
In a perfect world where I could access the benefits I earned and rightfully deserve for having been one of the 1% of this population who volunteered for military service and faithfully carried out every duty I was asked (including taking the vaccine that stole my career and body from me — a vaccine, I must point out, I did not even need and had a record of causing health problems), I would have received an increase in my compensation reward, allowing me be able to pay my bills on time every month. I would also have received the money to scale my business, so later this year I could actually pay myself a large enough salary that I no longer need a government check every month.
But this is not a perfect world. This is a fucked up world filled with fucked up people who go through life with a half-assed mentality and screw the rest of us over. And somehow these fucked up people have infected government agencies like the VA.
Even though on paper I have enormous benefits as a disabled veteran, I cannot access them because the gatekeepers deny them to me; as well as other veterans like me in the same predicaments.
“America is Grateful to You for Your Service” is a lie and I will never forget this betrayal. When I have power I will try to make it right for others. I will support charities and organizations that actually help veterans, and try to make them more powerful. That is the only solution I can see right now. The federal systems are just too broken.
Update July ’13: Since first publishing this article back in March ’13, I was upgraded to 70% disability rating for payment purposes. Still not the full 80%, but as my condition worsens I guess I’m inching my way up there.