Veterans feel shutdown's sting

Benefits and support services may grind to a halt for more than 5 million vets and their families

Veteran Raul Sanchez protests for federal workers idled by the government shutdown in San Antonio.
AP Photo/Eric Gay

The government shutdown is decimating federal services for military veterans and their families as it stretches on into a second week.

Many veterans rely on the wide range of benefits administered by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, which is grinding to a halt as a result of the shutdown, removing a critical safety net. The VA was forced last week to send home 7,800 benefits administration workers (half of whom are veterans themselves) — and shut down public access to its 58 regional offices. The offices are still processing benefit claims behind the closed doors and away from the unanswered phones, but it’s slow going with limited resources. After seven months of steadily reducing its claims backlog, the department has seen a reversal in the past week, and the backlog is growing again.

“We’ve lost ground we fought hard to take,” VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki recently told a House committee. “Roughly 1,400 veterans a day are now not receiving decisions on their disability compensation claims due to the end of overtime.”

Veterans returning from war face tremendous challenges. They often have long-term physical or mental disabilities, with 20 percent of military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from serious mental-health issues, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. The unemployment rate among vets is 11.7 percent, compared with 9.1 percent for nonveterans — and the gap would probably be even higher without the many services the government provides to help reintegrate vets into civilian society. Long-term outcomes can be even worse.

While some veterans are stuck in limbo, awaiting their benefits, others have lost access to necessary information and services, including the ability to speak face to face with VA representatives.

One veteran, for example, was turned away Wednesday at the door of the VA’s New York regional office by an armed guard. The veteran — who asked to remain anonymous for fear that if his name reached the press, the VA would take away what benefits he has — explained that he made an appointment two months ago but that when he arrived, there was no one who would speak with him. According to the vet, the VA never called him to cancel, and the hotline number he was given offered no support other than an announcement that, because of the government shutdown, there was no one available to take his call.

“It’s like constantly bumping into a brick wall,” he said, verging on tears,  “I’ve been looking forward to this for so long.”

He pulled himself together and decided to head up to the VA hospital on 23rd Street to look for answers there.

Missing checks

It remains unclear whether VA regional offices have ceased to honor scheduled appointments. Both Christine Pons, a spokeswoman at the New York regional office, and Randal Noller, a spokesman at the VA’s base in Washington, D.C., used the terms “evolving” and “fluid” to describe the situation and said there are no clear answers.

While the process evolves, money earmarked for service members seems to be disappearing.

Nothing in the VA’s official documentation mentions any change in education funding for October. But Al Dupont, who studies media and cultural studies at the University of California, Riverside, under the GI Bill, did not receive his basic allowance for housing or his book stipend for the month. To make ends meet, he had to rent books this semester instead of purchase them.

“I am concerned because school can only hold off so much for us military students,” he said. “They already extend deadlines normally, since they are aware of VA difficulties and payment times, but this might push things further.”

On the other hand, Calvin Wauchop, a veteran who studies political science at Pace University, got his housing allowance for October.

“I got lucky, I think,” he said.

The shutdown has introduced an element of unwanted surprise in the lives of veterans — and has highlighted the tenuousness with which they live, day in and day out. Wauchop is fortunate not to face immediate financial constraints, but he hasn’t escaped the shutdown unscathed. He’s in his last semester of school and is trying to plan for his postgraduate future.

“I’m trying to get some answers,” he said. “I tried calling this morning, but they’re shut down up in Buffalo. And the VA reps at our school — their regular liaison isn’t at the office. The whole pipeline is stopped.”

In lower Manhattan the veteran who was turned away at the regional office said he was seeking financial support for his electrical-engineering degree program at the TCI College of Technology. He had already paid for October’s classes out of his own pocket and had to miss two classes in order to get to his canceled appointment.

VA representatives did not respond to questions about the GI Bill, and in the department’s two-page “Veterans Field Guide to Government Shutdown,” education is barely mentioned, except to point out that education call centers would cease functioning.

Also striking was the news that over the weekend four troops were killed while on duty in Afghanistan, bringing the number who have died since the shutdown to 26. Typically, the family of a deceased service member is given a $100,000 one-time death benefit to help pay for the burial service and to tide them over until benefits kick in, as well a year’s worth of housing allowance. However, those service members’ families were allowed to collect their bodies but not the benefits.

“The Department of Defense does not currently have the authority to pay death gratuities and other key benefits for the survivors of service members killed in action,” said Carl Woog, a department spokesman.

On Wednesday the House of Representatives voted unanimously to finance death benefits during the shutdown. In the meantime, the Fisher House Foundation has stepped in and offered to advance the money needed to pay those benefits until the Pentagon can repay the loan.

Uncertain outcome

The good news is that health services for veterans remain open. Because of a law passed in 2009, Congress funds certain aspects of the VA a year in advance to ensure that even if a government shutdown does occur, health services will remain available for at least an additional year.

But VA hospitals don’t pay rent, and they don’t buy groceries. They can’t offer an education or help track down job interviews.

Now, on the 12th day of the partial government shutdown, 3.8 million veterans are in jeopardy of losing those promised benefits.

The numbers are not pretty: If the VA doesn’t get funding soon, 364,000 veterans and their families will lose essential financial support that helps keep them sheltered, clothed and fed. More than 1,200 children of veterans — including many with severe, service-related disabilities such as spina bifida and other birth defects — will lose their livelihoods. Pension payments for nearly 315,000 veterans and 202,000 surviving spouses and dependents will end. And the GI bill will no longer be able to provide the education benefits and living stipends that are currently allowing more than half a million former service members to earn degrees and get the training they need to reintegrate into society.

Some of these payments have already been cut off — Dupont’s missing October housing stipend, for example — but the situation is hit or miss, with some vets still getting the services they need. If the shutdown doesn’t end soon, every piece of financial assistance provided to vets will cease. November’s checks — totaling $6.25 billion and going to 5.18 million beneficiaries — won’t go out, and a staggering number of vets will be left with nowhere to turn.

While House Republicans continue to cherry-pick particular aspects of government programs they want to fund despite the shutdown, the Senate and the White House have made clear they will not accept any piecemeal funding bills, even for the sake of veterans.

Appealing to the House Committee on Veteran Affairs on Thursday, Shinseki said the shutdown is having serious consequences.

“There are,” he said, “veterans, service members, families and children counting on us.”

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