hiking veterans

Wearing a “veteran” ballcap starts conversations.

Lord’s soldier

The “San Diego Chargers” jersey worn by a twenty-something man I met near the summit of Angel’s Landing trail prompted me to ask whether he was a Los Angeles -based fan or one from San Diego. From Temecula, Californi, he and his buddies were up in Zion for a “men’s retreat”; among the faith community, that is “code” for a spiritual bonding time. We talked about our respective churches and our military service. As a Navy veteran, he asked me whether I had been to the Philippines; his father had joined the Navy from there. Eugene was an Army veteran. I told him about my son, an Army veteran. Eugene knew Fort Bragg. He and my son, were sort of, but not quite, following in each respective fathers’ footsteps. One of his companions was a veteran of the Iraq war. Both were now college students. As we talked, I encouraged him to endure the bureaucracy of the VA medical evaluation process (he had gone once and was discouraged by the red tape) to get service-connected injuries treated – or compensated. Being young men of faith as well as warriors, these newly encountered Brothers encouraged me. Like me, though my friends and several dozen people attempted the narrow and very physically-demanding ascent to the “Landing”, I knew these guys had nothing to prove to themselves. Military services do the difficult every day. The impossible generally takes just a bit longer.

DOD recorder

There weren’t but one or two available seats on the crowded shuttle bus from the Temple of Sinawawa stop in Zion National Park. It was a thirty-minute ride back to the parking lot. Looking tired and a little irritated, the large man ( solid, not stocky) squeezed into the last available seat, directly across from me. He looked at my ballcap and thanked me for my service. We chatted. He was taking in Zion while his wife was at some military event in San Diego. He is a civilian archivist for the DOD, which lead to talking about history, this blog, and travel. Apparently, Lake Powell should be on my “bucket list”. One of the things that all this military reminiscing lead to was to get some coffee prior to starting back to the hotel in St. George.

View of the Virgin River in Zion NP. Angel’s Landing trail.
Though some start, few finish the ascent to the very top

“Airdale” trucker

Tomahawk night launch, Red Sea, 1993

On Saturday morning, the motel cafe was busy. All eight little tables were occupied. At one table, a man about my age wore a Desert Storm veteran ballcap. I asked him what service, and he responded Navy. I was also a Desert Storm veteran. He offered me a seat. Mike had been an Navy “airdale”, the Navy nickname for a member of the aviation support community. An aviation ordnance technician, he served a carrier airwing in the Persian Gulf during the conflict. We chuckled about engineers who design but never actually tried to use some things in aircraft he worked on; trying to remove an assembly where you could neither lay flat or reach overhead comfortably, but in one case having to crouch the whole time removing it. My companion, a retired DOD engineer, feigned dismay. A couple of comments he made, however, suggested he was a little more ‘dismayed’ than he let on. The trucker at the table across from us was also a military veteran, though from the prior conflict. As Mike and I chatted about the Navy, missed advancement opportunities (if only those darn Master Chiefs would retire so others could move up the career ladder!), and life after the military, the more I got to thinking how a community, a brotherhood, sisterhood, or more accurately – a large extended family one can meet all over the country.

Community. Often it starts with a ballcap, a veteran-themed t-shirt, or other, and an interest in getting to know someone.

Mesothelioma-affected veterans

The Mesothelioma Center provides the following information for veterans and their families to get educated and find support for veterans affected by mesothelioma. Thanks to Samatha Litten of the Public Outreach Department of the Mesothelioma Center for providing this information:

Countless veterans are currently suffering from life-threatening illnesses that are a result of exposure to asbestos, a material that was commonly used in hundreds of military applications, products, and ships because of its resistance to fire. Veterans who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma even qualify for special benefits from the U.S Department of Veteran Affairs.

We recently published an educational guide about mesothelioma prognosis:

ask the Chief

disability compensation questions

Becoming an expert in any specialty in the military takes time.  The nature of military assignments is such that individuals transfer and often take that expertise with them!   This is particularly aggravating in the specialties that relate to service members career and health administration.  Because the military is a large bureaucracy, with volumes of policies, regulations and procedures for virtually everything,  obtaining answers to specific situations is very difficult. 

military service and service-connected disabilities

 If you are on Active Duty getting close to your EAOS, a veteran with health issues possibly connected to your military service, or transitioning or enlisting in the Reserve as a veteran of Active Duty, you may find the following example from actual experience helpful.  This example is from a family member, a former soldier, who in the last year and a half of his Active Duty enlistment was plagued with shin splints, and an injury that incurred during training in a military culture that treats infirmity as a lack of physical and mental toughness. In most respects an excellent soldier, medical complications and the command climate influenced him to not consider re-enlisting.

From the author’s experience, the process of post-enlistment transition is much improved since the 1990s. The Army referred the soldier for transitional job training, and recommended him for a re-enlistment eligible discharge at his End of Active Obligated Service (EAOS). But there is some ambiguity in that transition. Whether assumptions made or questions went unasked, the service member knew that an initial enlistment contract in the military was a commitment to eight years of total service. Three, four or six years of an Active Duty service and the balance served in the Active or Inactive component of the Reserve. But it is apparent that the soldier was not aware that inactive or IRR service was the default to serve out the balance of the contract. In an inactive status, the service member does not drill nor receive compensation, but annually is only required to inform the military of any changes in status or address.

evaluation by the VA for disabilities

However, as part of the soldier’s transitional assistance he was recommended to go to the Veterans Administration off-post to be evaluated for the medical conditions resulting from, or aggravated by, military service. Once processed out of the Army and possessing a DD214, the official record of military service for veterans, the Veterans Administration determines he has a service-connected disability.    Further,  the severity of the disability finding is such that the veteran receives a 100 percent rating and compensation for injuries and illness sustained while in the military service.   

Can a disabled veteran still serve?

There are different categories of service-connected disability, and either the service branch or the Veterans Administration may determine a disability exists. Unless the member or his command requests a Medical Review Board prior to the service member’s discharge, and the service branch makes a determination, the veteran can go to the Veterans Administration for a medical evaluation. Either may result in a finding of service-connected disability which may be eligible for compensation.

the DD214 is key to benefits and reenlistment

There is no prohibition on its face, for a veteran receiving compensation from the VA for a disability to reenlist in the Reserve component. For the military branch, the re-enlistment code on the DD214  is the clearest indicator of eligibility. Getting a clear answer from the military service representative is difficult. As any veteran can attest, expertise is a rare commodity. Rumor, half-answers and lack of knowledge dominates. The individual affected or a specialist, like a service-organization (VFW, DAV, or AL) representative, may find the answers more readily.

Unless a veteran is in receipt of a classification of 100 percent disability / unemployable, a veteran receiving compensation for 100 percent disability, may serve in the Active Reserve, unless the Reserve determines that the member needs to be medically evaluated and screened for enlistment. This apparently can become, unintentionally,  bureaucratically cumbersome, where the member cannot receive military pay and a VA compensation. Suspending ones compensation, or a finding by the military branch that the members disability rating is less than what the VA has determined, can be confusing at best.   

U.S. military veterans of past conflicts have the same opportunity to receive care and compensation for disabilities incurred or aggravated by military service. While some medical and service records have been damaged or lost from a several decades-old fire (1973) at the national archive when records were stored on paper, most veterans have access to records that assist them when requesting benefits. Current policies evaluate a list of symptoms, dates and locations stationed with compensation – or medical-treatment- eligible illnesses.

Even a finding by the Veterans’ Administration of a Service-Connected Disability, rated at 0 (Zero) Percent, allows the veteran to obtain benefits for herself or her family. It can be reviewed and re-evaluated based on additional evidence, including civilian medical records documenting conditions a physician attests to military service. Many times, a veteran has received benefits that retroactively are granted back to the period of the veteran’s discharge.

If there is one piece of advice that any service member or veteran should heed, it is to get evaluated. Physical and emotional ailments can be treated before they cause further disabilities. Suicide among veterans, homelessness, PTSD, and drug addiction are among the most severe problems affecting men and women who

no substitute for becoming informed

Visiting or becoming a member of a veterans’ service organization is the best source for information to support a veteran of the armed forces. (Spouses can also become auxiliary members of these organizations.) The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) are the most well-known. Vietnam veterans and Iraq-Afghanistan veterans have service organizations as well. They have expertise, first-hand experience and the resources to assist veterans with claims to the VA and benefits the veteran may be unaware of. And personally becoming educated is no less important. The following links are reference material to support obtaining a medical discharge,  supporting a veteran’s request to change military status and official records (DD214), and understanding the policies and options for a veteran. The veteran in this example is still working through the bureaucracy, though VA compensation has continued uninterrupted.

Guide to Obtaining a Medical Discharge (unofficial)

Medical Evaluation Board (PowerPoint)

Requesting a change to your military discharge (DD214)