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, accord- ing 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.
Efforts are being made to speed up the corrections on faulty discharge papers, Army officials said.
“I lived on my parents’ couch for a couple months, but it was a cramped living space and I couldn’t stay there. I went to the Little Portion Friary and then to the City Mission,” said Simmance, who finally found permanent lodging in a subsidized apartment a few weeks ago.
The 31-year-old entered a free fall in 2006, when he started experiencing service-related mental illness. He lost a $65,000-a-year job, his apartment and his truck while living in Seattle.
When he 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 says 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.
Issue called disgraceful
Simmance’s story highlights the struggles of other local veterans who have had difficulty receiving medical and disability benefits from the VA.
Upset over the clerical errors veterans face after serving overseas, often in combat situations, several veterans advocates and public officials met recently at Rep. Louise Slaughter’s office in Niagara Falls to discuss clearing up the backlog.
“It is absolutely unacceptable and, frankly, disgraceful that any veteran would be delayed or denied the benefits they earned after putting their life on the line in service to our country,” said Slaughter, DFairport. “Veterans must be shown nothing less than the same commitment that they showed to us.”
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.
“So as they’re looking through records, they do not properly interpret service,” said Welch, who has worked as an advocate for years and has assisted many vets in correcting their discharge papers.
“The other part of it is that, when they are processing you out, the person leaving just wants to get his paperwork and get out and may not notice errors,” he said. “Quite frankly, I don’t know of any veteran whose DD214 form is 100 percent accurate.”
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.
But the Defense Department says it is the service member’s responsibility to make sure everything is in order.
“It’s important to note that the soldier is responsible for reviewing the DD214 and ensuring it is accurate before he/she signs. The soldier is his/her own best defense against DD214 errors,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington of the Defense Department.
The errors often aren’t noticed until weeks or months and sometimes even years later, according to advocates.
And the consequences can be devastating.
When a veteran later seeks benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a worker looks over the discharge paper listing campaign ribbons, Purple Hearts, notations of overseas service and other evidence the veteran experienced combat or served in a war zone, Welch said.
Without that paper or with an incomplete or faulty discharge paper, he said, “you’re denied services.”
Joseph P. Shydlinski, commander of the Disabled Veterans organization in Kenmore, is also very familiar with the problems caused by inaccurate discharge papers.
“Vets have to go back to the Department of Defense, and half the time the department doesn’t want to listen and there is a hell of a backlog,” said Shydlinski, another Vietnam veteran. “Sometimes the vets get lucky and get it fixed in a day or two, other times it can take months. In the meantime, the veterans are suffering because they are not being properly treated at the VAs.”
That’s what happened to Cushing, the former Marine who served two tours of duty in Iraq and a third with an antiterrorism unit in east Africa.
Cushing is a Canadian by birth who enlisted in the Marines to gain U.S. citizenship more quickly.
Home and savings lost
But when she left the service and began suffering health problems related to her military duty, she was denied benefits because of clerical errors on her discharge papers. She ended up living in her car last summer before getting enough money to pay for an inexpensive apartment on Buffalo’s West Side.
Despite her combat service and military citations, she left the Marines with discharge papers that listed her as a “conscientious objector.” She didn’t see the mistake because it was in a code she said she did not recognize.
“We basically hand the American government a blank check with a value of up to our life,” she said.
“In my case,” Cushing added, “the value of that check is I’ll never walk unassisted again, I have wicked PTSD, asthma that will kill me quicker than smoking, radiation exposure from depleted uranium. I’m being watched for skin cancer and soft tissue cancer and I have chronic intestinal problems.”
She was finally able to get her discharge papers amended after 50 weeks, a shorter wait, Cushing noted, than most.
She says she still can’t get over the bureaucracy and how it ends up harming veterans.
Another woman who shares Cushing’s opinion is Tracy Kinn, a New York State veteran counselor highly regarded among several local veterans.
Kinn said she does not believe military employees maliciously make errors in the discharge papers. Instead, she blames it on a lack of knowledge.
Like other veteran advocates, Kinn says it is not uncommon for her to catch errors in discharge papers.
“It’s crazy. How do you leave something off like a citation [medal]? I sent in a correction last June for notation of a Purple Heart on discharge papers, and we’re waiting for the correction to come through,” Kinn said.
Without a combat medal, she added, the onus is on the veteran to prove he or she suffers from post-traumatic stress from military-related service in order to get medical help or disability benefits.
Veterans, she added, may not have directly participated in a battle, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that does not preclude them from witnessing and experiencing wartime horrors.
To help veterans work through the bureaucracy, State Sen. George D. Maziarz, who attended the Niagara Falls meeting, said legislation that would require county veterans services workers to review amended discharge forms might help speed up the process.
“Maybe we should look at legislation that would require county veteran services officers to at least offer the ability to come in and review a veteran’s documents,” the Newfane Republican said. “A review by an expert may avoid delays in getting benefits that are rightfully due.”
The organizer of the Niagara Falls meeting, Robert Saunderson, said its purpose was to draw attention to the problems veterans are facing with faulty discharge papers.
“We’re trying to raise awareness in a unified advocacy,” said Saunderson, a Town of Niagara resident and volunteer with the Iraq War Veterans Organization headquartered in California.