When Walter Williams came home from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2006, one of the first things he did was file a disability claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Four years later, the Menlo Park native is still fighting for his benefits.
He gets regular treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from a special PTSD clinic run by the VA, but the Veterans Benefits Administration, a different arm of the agency, denied Williams’ claim.
“They say it’s not combat related,” he said.
“It’s confusing,” Williams added, because he’s spent hours telling counselors at the VA’s PTSD clinic about the lasting psychological impact of being abandoned while on a convoy outside Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.
“There’s a misperception in the civilian sector because we’ve toted guns and done all these things that we shouldn’t be so sensitive,” he said. “But it’s different to be in a unit where you’re with a bunch of other soldiers who all have your back, and then to be out here alone.”
Williams story is hardly unique. But a new VA policy making it easier for veterans to apply for and receive PTSD benefits could help thousands of Bay Area soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan to ease their transition to civilian life.
The rule change, which the New York Times reports could take affect as early as Monday, would eliminate the need of returning soldiers diagnosed with PTSD to document specific events, called stressors, in order to receive disability compensation.
“VA’s claims processors have a hard time corroborating incidents during a deployment,” explained Paul Sullivan, who heads the organization Veterans for Common Sense, “but scientific research shows the deployment itself is the cause of increased risk for mental health conditions because harsh living conditions, the threat of death, roadside bombs, the shelling of bases every day are the major risk factors everyone experiences that can lead to PTSD.”
The new rules would require the VA to treat PTSD claims from returning veterans the same way it treats claims for Agent Orange poisoning for Vietnam veterans. It would presume that if a soldier has been deployed to the war zone and subsequently been diagnosed with PTSD, that he or she developed the condition as a result of war-time service.
To date, 150,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have gone to the VA to get treatment for PTSD, but only 75,000 have had a disability claim for PTSD approved.
The new rules would appear to immediately benefit at least 7,100, Northern California veterans, who, like Williams, have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan and been treated at a VA facility for PTSD or a related mental health condition, as well as tens of thousands of local Vietnam veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD but never received compensation.
A VA spokesperson refused to comment on the new policy until it is formally unveiled next week.
Long-time observers of the VA like Sullivan say veterans most likely to benefit are those who file fresh claims for compensation. It’s unclear what the effect would be for veterans like Williams, whose disability claim’s have been denied.
For his part, Williams, now 33, has learned how to manage his symptoms. He still gets panic attacks, but they have become less frequent. He’s also landed a job as an employment counselor at the veterans advocacy group Swords to Plowshares, which provides him with both money he needs to survive and the satisfaction that he is helping his fellow vets.
Still, he continues to fight for his benefits.
“I guess on their end it’s a monetary thing, but for me it’s more than that,” he said. “It’s about admitting that these things happen in war.”