Local veterans face challenges with health care

As Jim Curtis walks the ground of the Tahoma National Cemetery, visiting the gravesite of an old Marine Corps friend, a helicopter flies overhead.

Curtis, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said the noise is similar to the sounds of helicopters that frequently fly over his North Bend home — and remind him of his time as a machine gunner during the Vietnam War.

“It sounds like minute stuff,” he said. “But it weighs on you.”

The noise is just one of the health challenges Curtis faces as a disabled veteran. He also suffers from memory lapses and a tremor in his right hand brought on by Parkinson’s disease, which came from his prolonged exposure to Agent Orange.

Curtis has been a longtime advocate for military members, frequently holding raffles and food donations to benefit both veterans and active duty members. However, he has grown more concerned about the challenges facing disabled veterans.

Although the U.S. has made improvements in homelessness and employment issues for veterans, challenges persist in health care for veterans. While nearly 1 in 5 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, only half seek treatment.

Suicide rates among veterans have also grown between 2001 and 2018. In 2017, veteran suicide rates were about 1.5 times that of non-veterans.

Rocky Martinez, commander of the Renton-Pickering Post 79 in Snoqualmie and an Iraq War veteran, said one of the biggest challenges in providing veterans with health care is the often long, confusing and red-taped process of submitting a disability claim to Veterans Affairs (VA) health care services.

Not all veterans are eligible for care through the VA, as conditions for veterans are not presumptive, and eligibility relies on veterans submitting a claim and proving that a disability or injury is connected to their time in the service.

“A lot of people don’t know who to turn to,” Martinez said. “I think that’s where a lot of veterans get stuck. I think it’s a long process and they kind of get fed up.”

Although this process can be quick — the VA says the average claim takes about 150 days — it can also take years if the paperwork isn’t in order and can be problematic for those in immediate need of care.

When a veteran has a health condition that was not documented in their records, it can be difficult to link it to their time in the military, said Dave Waggoner, a service officer with the Post 79 legion and a Vietnam veteran. He said this becomes especially true for veterans who do not notice their health problems until they’re older.

“[Young veterans] have their whole life ahead of them and have no idea that the injury they suffered on guard duty is going to come back to haunt them,” he said. “They aren’t too concerned until they get to our age and they have problems tracing problems back to a service connection.”

When a claim is approved by the VA, veterans are given a disability rating, expressed as a percentage, that signifies the severity of the disability and the amount of compensation the veteran is eligible for.

Curtis said he started at a 20% disability rating, but through frequent doctor visits over a five-year period, he was upgraded to 100% — a process that was huge for his ability to treat his Parkinson’s disease, providing an annual neurology evaluation and medication.

“It’s a slow process and I didn’t get much information from the VA,” he said. “It’s usually some other veteran I’m talking to who knows what you need to do.”

Another challenge for veterans, specifically on the Eastside, is the absence of an outpatient clinic. In 2020, the VA closed its Bellevue clinic, which was designed for small services, meaning for those veterans on the Eastside, the closest VA hospital is now in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

“It definitely made an impact. A lot of Eastside veterans relied on that clinic,” Martinez said. “It was a lot easier to get to the Bellevue clinic than it was to drive to Seattle.”

Still, Martinez, Curtis and Waggoner all praised aspects of the care the VA provides. Waggoner specifically called out its efforts to get veterans vaccinated against COVID-19. But each had concerns about the communication, especially for those just exiting the military.

Although there are transition officers assigned to help those leaving the military transition back into society and apply for benefits, Martinez recalled returning from Iraq in 2003, getting a letter that he was eligible for health care services, but had no one explain what that meant.

“I think that communication kind of fails sometimes. It’s not nonexistent, it just needs to improve,” he said. “I did not get that transition officer, and that happens to certain veterans, so they don’t know where to go.”

That is a gap several volunteer veteran service organizations, such as the American Legion Post and Veterans of Foreign Wars, have stepped up to try and fill.

Together, Martinez and Waggoner are working to open a veteran service office in Issaquah by the end of January, which will work to connect Eastside veterans to available resources and help them to file claims with the VA.

“If we don’t help, we’re going to lose veterans to mental health issues, or they’re going to fall through the cracks and potentially become homeless,” Martinez said. “We need a place, and that’s why we started it.”

For Curtis, he’s concerned that many veterans are not willing to speak about their experiences and wonders if the delay in getting help could contributing to a rising suicide rates among veterans.

“A lot of older guys become so frustrated,” he said. “Every veteran needs to know that other veterans are your best resource.”

If you are in need of veteran services, call the Renton-Pickering American Post Legion 79 at 425-243-9498 and leave a message.

The Valley Record has reached out to the Washington state Department of Veteran Affairs for comment.