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Part 4: Hurry Up & Wait: A Decade of Insight into the Horrible Treatment of One of Our Own Veterans
- Part 1: Hurry Up & Wait: A Decade of Insight into the Horrible Treatment of One of Our Own Veter
A look into a decade of fighting with the DOD, VA, USAF, and various other boards to get what I deserve but only to be thrown under the bus and lied to.
My name is Jonathan Williams and I have a story to tell. I am an Operation Enduring Freedom disabled veteran, who served in the US Air Force as a Security Forces Member that has lost my fight with everything. Here is how my battle started. On July 5, 2003 I was deployed to a remote base in Pakistan serving in Operation Enduring Freedom / Iraqi Freedom. During that time I was involved in indirect fire from insurgent forces, harassing activity from townspeople outside the base whether it is gunfire, or loudspeaker psychological infliction from prayer activity. In a few situations I did come under fire and my life was threatened numerous times. At that time I had no idea what was to come psychologically and physically.
When I returned from my duties over in Pakistan I was stationed in Misawa, Japan. In Japan I experienced mood disorders, as well as, back issues. I went to the hospital to have my back checked and see why my muscles and nerves were in extreme pain. The military hospital on base treated me for muscle spasms, and they took no precautions as far as x-ray or MRI. In addition to my back, I had some depression issues and anxiety. In response to my back issues, the hospital referred me to physical therapy and gave me a sheet of exercises to do. No tests or lab works, just exercise and medication. I went for a few months with sporadic pain and back issues plus took medication and went to the doc every so often for more meds.
When I left Japan I was reassigned to McGuire AFB, NJ and worked law enforcement for the base. One night in 2004, I snapped my back in two; I couldn’t even flush the toilet. I went to the hospital and they did an x-ray on me, and found a 1cm gap in between my disks on my spinal cord. After that was discovered, the doctors ordered an MRI. The MRI discovered I had degenerative disk disease, spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, and grade I anterolisthesis, in addition to herniated and bulged disks. After this was discovered, I opted to be medically discharged.
In the process of being medically discharged, I met with a spinal specialist who stated that I could never run, climb, do push ups, and any excessive physical activities for the rest of my life. The doctor also agreed that this degeneration could have been initiated and aggravated during my military service. I was then granted service connection for my back, and given a US Air Force Medical Board Disability rating of 10% disability and given the option to separate under medical / honorable terms with a severance pay and no medical retirement. The severance package was $14,500 and I have to still pay that back because the government doesn’t allow both DOD Severance Pay, and Veterans Affairs Disability Compensation to be collected. So I have to choose between either one. I selected VA Disability.
The VA evaluated my case and rated me in September of 2005 with a combined rating of 40%. My dislocated back was rated 20% and I received 30% for dysthymia and anxious mood. Because of this rating, even with a fractured back, and a mental disorder, I had no other alternative then to gain employment. I received employment through the county I lived in and sustained that job for a couple years, yet I was armed and carried excessive weight, I still had to provide for my family. I was suffering those couple of years and even tried for an increase for my VA Disability so that I can go to part time employment. I was increased to 60% in September of 2006. 40% was given to me for my back, and 30% was kept for my mental disorder. I was also given 10% for gastroesophogeal reflux disorder due to medication usage and stress. In addition to those disabilities I was granted service connection for erectile dysfunction and hypertension which gave me 0%.
The Beginning of the Battle
The middle of 2007 I started exhibited more amplified symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Flashbacks, nightmares, mood swings, depression, anxiety, etc. It was worse than when I was in the military. I went to several VA and Civilian specialists and they all stated I exhibited symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The disabilities got so strong that I was suicidal and had those thoughts for a good several months. I was even hospitalized for these problems. Being in an armed position, going through a divorce, and falling low on income, I was in such an awkward and distressed position that I had to leave my employment for the county and submitted for an increase in VA Disability due to Unemployability, adding on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I was clinically diagnosed with, and Social Security Disability in September 2007.
This is where everything falls apart, for me, my life, and my health. I received confirmation from the VA that I had a rating medical evaluation in October of 2007 to see if I qualified medically and psychologically for my diagnosed issues and if they warranted an increase or an addition to my disabilities list. I was given that evaluation by VA Doctors and Psychologists with P.H.D. and Doctorates. They found out the following:
- An MRI showed that my back is now in Grade II Spondylolisthesis resulting in nerve compression on my spinal column.
- L4 – L5 Disk Herniation, L5 – S1 Disk Buldging.
- Mild Degenerative Disk Disease in S1, L5, L4.
- Spinal Stenosis of the Lower Back Spinal Column
- Nerve Failure and Lumbar Radiculopathy directly under my L5 – S1
I was also given a recommendation from one of the doctor’s that my erectile dysfunction is directly related to the compressed nerve which controls that activity.
Another test given to me was a rectal exam; flex test to test range of motion, and a physical evaluation of my entire body including Blood Pressure, and heart rate readings. After the exam I had tests done in November on my stomach to identify problems in that region, these were the following:
- Positive traces of Helicobacter Pylori (Ulcer Bacteria) in my stomach.
- A Barium Swallow indicated esophageal dysmotility (Stomach valve improperly working)
An EKG and Stress Test was completed in November 0f 2007 as well and identified the following problem:
- EKG identified a Right Bundle Branch Block in my heart.
- Hypertension due to High Blood Pressure for several years of medicine use.
During this time I had a Psychological evaluation from a VA Psychologist to find out if I have symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and not just Depression and Anxiety. Here were his findings:
- There are recurring and intrusive stressors such as reliving explosions and indirect fire. He was in a constant state of fear and death anticipation throughout his stay in Pakistan.
- He has regressive thoughts about his role as MP and he gets into panic attacks at the slightest provocations. Seeing a child inflating a balloon would make him flashback to whizzing RPG in Pakistan. He loses sense of direction at times and does not know where he is heading for while driving in Hanover. He says he also has intrusive memories of rodents, worms, and fireworks.
- The veteran is reluctant to talk about his stressors, and this may be the reason why he was diagnosed with Dysthemia. Clinically he looks more depressed than anxious. He is civil and laid back showing no irritable temper or anxiety. But when examined there is no doubt that he is
covering up PTSD Symptoms. He avoids social activity and he left his job as Security Officer with the county abruptly without notice. When conditions deteriorated between him and his wife, he was not able to discuss ways and means of dealing with stress.
- The veteran cited a number of signs such as disturbed and fitful sleep, waking up frequently, feeling fatigued, and unable to rest. He has the startle response to sudden noise, touch, and interference. He does not show the typical or expected hyper vigilance or anger toward Middle
- CONCLUSION: The import of this Compensation and Pension points out to a diagnosis of PTSD, severe, with depression. There is a substantial evidence for decreased competency with marital and vocational losses. He appears to need counseling and treatment before he
can be gainfully employed.
Clinical testing during this exam also pointed out that my psychological profile qualifies for a “cry for help” with the elevations across the board. My evaluation scored 85.5 when the cutoff for this evaluation was 65. The doctor also stated that my profile does show “one that PTSD veterans often produce.” Another test given to me was a MISS Combat Scale and that score was 121 which is significantly above the cutoff of 107 indicating that my profile conforms with those who are diagnosed with PTSD.
When these tests were completed, I waited for the results which were sent to me at my request and one VA Doctor let me know of my results late at night on the ride home from work. I then waited for any word that the VA can give me on my increase. Nothing was given out to me and when I called the VA a few times during November 2007 to January 2008, I received the response “we are waiting for a letter from your employers. The county and the Air Force.” So I waited, and waited, until it got to much for me mentally and financially. I went into the VA Lebanon Hospital in February 2008 and admitted myself into the Psych Ward. I spent a week in the ward.
My experience in that ward was somewhat horrible due to the fact we were confined in the ward, had no rights to go outside the ward. The food was excellent, the nurse corps was satisfactory, but the treatment and program was very disorganized, lacked support, and felt like prison inmates had more then we did. I worked in law enforcement and was exposed to prison life, they were better treated than a veteran coming in off the street complaining of depression and anxiety. In one instance, my mother visited and brought a Scrabble game with, the deluxe version for us veterans to play. We had an older version, but, it was not the same as the deluxe. The nurses and doctors witnessed us play this game for a few days straight. When my mother brought in the game we were happier then a kid in a candy store. Until the head nurse of the night shift, told her to take it back because the pieces could be used to swallow and choke the patient. We did mention to the nurses on the unit that we were playing the other game for a few days, even the Director of the ward walked by and commented on the game several times, congratulating us on certain words and such. The night supervisor then took that away from us. Totally humiliating to my fellow veterans, to me, and my mother.
While I was in the ward, a veteran’s representative came to me and she was a case manager for the Operation Iraqi Freedom / Enduring Freedom Campaign veterans. She looked into my request for increase and the next day came to me and gave me the forms that those several telephone representatives were talking about. The kicker was I found out I had only a couple weeks to fill out these forms for the county only or I will be declined unemployability.
I was discharged a few days later and this is when I contacted Congressman Todd Platt’s office in my district and got them involved. I discussed the situation with his VA representative and she was very helpful. I sent the VA copies of the forms needed and a statement from myself on all the situations that happened to me while I was in Pakistan to support my claim.
A representative called me a few days later and said that the form I sent in as a statement supporting my claim was the wrong form and I need to fill out a different one. So that killed another week of waiting and anxiety.
After sending that form back, the same representative called me up and requested if I had any additional paperwork to substantiate my claim. I didn’t have anything else, just medical records and personnel records that put me in theater and in Pakistan. My supervisors did not put anything in my performance evaluation about direct combat, but, it wasn’t direct combat, the situations were everyday occurrences in our base. We had gunfire every night, and explosions
coming from the city. We had a life expectancy of 15 minutes if we left the compound. No air support, no evacuation plan. This was war, plain and simple 400 air force personnel and we were right in the middle of thousands of people that wanted to kill us. I then waited a few more weeks to see if the claim is finished and taken care of.
Within that time frame, I received statements by a fellow service member and my ex wife to collaborate my statements and situation reports. Supposedly the VA could not find reports of my situations I described due to the fact the base in Pakistan is gone now and the records were disseminated throughout the theater of operations or destroyed. The VA representative that was working on preparing my case even called me up and gave me two options, one, to submit for an increase in my dysthemia or a whole new claim for PTSD. Since the VA only can rate the mentality issue on one disability. I wanted to keep the PTSD claim, he then goes on to say, “we will need to reevaluate everything and send you in for an exam.”
I said “you already examined me in November!” He states “oh I’m sorry, it looks like you have.” I had the report right in front of me. After that conversation, I waited for the response from the VA on the decision of the claim. A few weeks later, nothing, I called and they said they were still waiting on service records.
On May 8, 2008, I received the decision, after almost 8 months of unemployment, debt, anxiety, depression, hospitalization, loopholes, and deception, I was denied everything. No increase for anything I put in for and my PTSD, which was diagnosed by four different doctors, and my own personal physician, was given denial on service connection.
The reasons for denying my PTSD claim are the following:
- PTSD was denied because “the evidence of record does not support a finding of service connection for PTSD. Service treatment records are negative for any diagnosis or treatment for PTSD while you were in the service. (PTSD does not always come up during military service, it can show up later down the road, in my case a few years.)
- Your claimed stressor is that of direct combat action with insurgents in Pakistan. (It wasn’t direct combat; the situations were indirect fire and loss of life for friendly forces. The situations did put me and my fellow service members in life threatening danger. But no shots were fired from us.)
- Your DD214, Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty does not show you were awarded medals or individual decorations verifying that you engaged in combat. (I have a combat border on my Air Force Expeditionary Medal, and have Valor on my Outstanding Unit Award. My other medals were never sent; I heard when I left Pakistan my medal for that operation was lost with the whole team.)
- Your military files and copies of your performance evaluations submitted in connection with this claim to do not show you participated in combat. Undated Article from Urdu Website received March 17, 2008 reports of an attack on a Pakistani outpost in the District resulting in an hour long firefight and one Pakistani Frontier Constable killed in action. The article does not provide a date of the attack (It is on the side of the article as 5 Aug., and the print out shows the internet address which shows it was in the 2003 archives, do the math), nor does the article make mention of any American Forces involved in the fight. (American Forces were not involved because we were in our compound watching it happen! Waiting for insurgents to attack us!)
- Sworn Statement from Pete Fraser, dated April 2, 2008 tells of an attack on your position with RPG’s and small arms fire. No exact date was provided (Yes there was, and it was in concurrence with my statement, he actually added more to it that I forgot about!) therefore we are unable to go to the service department to confirm this account.
- A veteran seeking service connection for PTSD may not rely on mere exposure in a combat zone, solely in and of itself. To support a diagnosis of PTSD. Detailed information is needed regarding specific events that can be verified which contributed to the development of the condition. It is the distressing event, rather than the mere presence in a combat zone, which may constitute a valid stressor for purposes of supporting a diagnosis of PTSD. You did not provide any evidence which would enable your stressful event to be verified. (I sent evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that I was on station, in a combat zone, and had witnesses to life threatening situations that I was involved in. Now you tell me, what else do I need?! Any judge and any jury after reading this case would have found me in the right!)
The reasons for denying me on 100% Unemployability were the following:
- Entitlement to individual unemployability may be established if the medical evidence of record indicates you are unable to secure or follow a substantially gainful occupation as a result of your service connected disabilities. (I have a paper from my physician stating I cannot work
for more than a year! And in the psychological evaluation I stated above, the psychologist even stated I need help before I gained employment.) Individual Unemployability may be granted when there is one disability evaluated as 60%, or two or more, one of which is 40%
(My Back!) with a combined evaluation of 70% or more. (Doesn’t make sense!)
- Entitlement to individual unemployability is denied because you have not been found unable to secure or follow a substantially gainfuloccupation as a result of service connected disabilities and you do not meet the scheduler requirements for this benefit. (SO WHAT NOW?!)
The Fight Continues
After receiving the letter in May, I immediately contested the decision and appealed with the help of Congressman Platt's Office and the American Legion. The pressure was on and I needed to get the wheels going! I wrote letters, and worked my butt off until July 2008 I recieved this:
Social Security Approved!!
Shortly after my battle with Social Security Denying me benefits, I immediately appealed and within a month was approved for SSA Disability in addition to my PTSD Approval! Things were looking up, but I was still in the hole only making $1,500 a month and backlogged so much with bills. The battle still wasn't over, I needed Unemployability.
Wow! That's All I Have To Say!
On October 20, 2008, after waiting another 3 months battling back and forth with the VA, I finally went to the mailbox, and pulled out a manilla envelop with the Veteran's Affairs Return Address on it. So I opened it up, my heart pounding a mile a minute, hoping for the best. I read the letter, walked a few steps up my driveway, and fell to my knees. Here is what it said:
Through a year of battling and going through the roughest fight of my life, I finally won! I was able to get my PTSD Retroactive since my Date of Separation (DOS)! Social Security Disability! and Individual Unemployability from the VA! I was able to pay off my bills, and get my life back on track! In December of 2008, I learned all about how I wasnt the only Veteran that was screwed by the Medical Board in the Air Force upon discharge, there were almost 65,000+ vets that were in my situation. So the US Government set up a Physical Disability Board of Review to look into these cases and review them. I immediately submitted my packet to them in January 2009. This is were my next battle begins!
Next Part: Part 5: PDBR Battle