Tuesday, October 03, 2006

VA Logic: Hug Veterans / Cut Their Benefits

Widow finally wins fight for benefits after his death

John Stempien fought for his nation in World War II, serving in the Special Forces.

Then he came home and fought for himself.

After being blown off an Italian mountainside by an explosive, his body battered by combat and frostbite, Stempien returned home to Michigan to battle the government and six decades' worth of paralyzing post-war flashbacks.

He was due disability compensation, but it didn't come -- not in full -- until this summer: $236,000, which will be sent in installments to his widow, Caroline.

John Stempien died at 84 in 2004.

"They took my man, chewed him up, spit him out and gave him back to me," said Caroline Stempien, 86, who lives in northern Oakland County. The accrued benefit, which goes back to 1946, is one of the largest settlements ever given an American veteran. [snip]

The VA has a troubling history of either failing to compensate injured veterans or making inconsistent decisions about benefits.

Last year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported the backlog of veterans' claims had shot up from 254,000 in 2003 to 340,000 last year. It also said the VA hasn't been able to ensure that vets get consistent decisions for compensation and other benefits across its 57 regional offices. [snip]

She ultimately tapped the Veterans of Foreign Wars to facilitate the case. It was the VFW that finally convinced the VA of its mistake, basing its arguments on court decisions from the veterans appellate court, established in 1988. [snip]

Caroline Stempien is emphatic on many points, but feels strongest that families of veterans should be better prepared by the government for the return of their loved ones.

But it wasn't the argument over disability benefits that rankled her most.

Over the course of the last 24 years, she said, the VA insisted her husband was already ill when he joined the First Special Service Force, a joint U.S.-Canadian commando unit that was in action between July 1942 and January 1945.

And it insisted that Hamtramck, where he was born, was in Canada and not the United States, she said. [snip]

But Michael Zehnder, the director of Oakland County Veterans' Services who served as a Marine in the Vietnam War, said the VA's obstinacy in the Stempiens' case wasn't rare.

The bureaucracy is so vast, he said, that it takes the kind of tenacity Calvin applied to receive benefits.

"I've always been puzzled at the treatment veterans get," he said.

"I'm not saying they should come back and get carte blanche, but the hoops you have to jump through to get any benefits at all are ridiculous."

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