Esquire’s Shooter Interview and the Drivers of VA Disability Backlog
Esquire carried a lengthy interview yesterday with the SEAL who shot Osama Bin Laden in the face, claiming he was “screwed” out of benefits he deserved:
But the Shooter will discover soon enough that when he leaves after sixteen years in the Navy, his body filled with scar tissue, arthritis, tendonitis, eye damage, and blown disks, here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation:
Nothing. No pension, no health care, and no protection for himself or his family.
The pension issue is just noise–the military doesn’t give you one until you’ve served for 20 years and the “Shooter” only served for 16. One can debate whether that requirement is too stingy, but it’s a policy question.
The protection issue is complicated because until recently the military hasn’t been in the business of high-profile assassinations at all, and even at present they’re typically conducted by drones (and you can’t take revenge on a drone). Yet, if you’re looking to keep a low profile, a good first step might be to turn down interviews with national magazines.
Stars & Stripes calls BS on the healthcare claim:
Like every combat veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the former SEAL, who is identified in the story only as “the Shooter”, is automatically eligible for five years of free healthcare through the Department of Veterans Affairs. But the story doesn’t mention that.
The writer, Phil Bronstein, who heads up the Center for Investigative Reporting, stands by the story. He said the assertion that the government gave the SEAL “nothing” in terms of health care is both fair and accurate, because the SEAL didn’t know the VA benefits existed. “No one ever told him that this is available,” Bronstein said. He said there wasn’t space in the article to explain that the former SEAL’s lack of healthcare was driven by an ignorance of the benefits to which he is entitled. “That’s a different story,” Bronstein said in a phone interview with Stars and Stripes about what he omitted from the article.
The Center for Investigative Reporting follows up with a story about the VA’s overloaded, bureaucratic disability system. The “Shooter” says nobody told him he was eligible for coverage:
The VA offers five years of virtually free health care for every veteran honorably discharged after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, even when he or she leaves the military early. But the Shooter told Bronstein that none of the counselors who came to SEAL Command told him that.
It’s tragic that many veterans have to wait so long to have their disability claims processed. But both stories are somewhat muddy as to what the Shooter is trying to claim; the Esquire piece says he pays out of pocket for “weekly chiropractic care” and the follow-up mentions undefined “neck, back and eye injuries.” It’s not clear that any of those things would qualify as service-related, though back injuries are common in the military. Nonetheless it’s significant that he chose to retire within 36 months of qualifying for a pension, and it raises the question of whether he was in such pain that he couldn’t keep going. That might be unusual in the armed forces in general, but the SEALs have a much more demanding job.
There are many drivers of the backlog in veterans’ disability claims, some are good, like wounded soldiers surviving at a higher rate, and some are more ambiguous. The average veteran filing for disability claims eight to nine ailments. This is in part because the VA advises them to claim as many as possible. Due to past experiences with things like Agent Orange or Gulf War Syndrome, they learned that the long-term medical effects of wartime exposure can be hard to predict, and that whether or not the claims actually get approved it’s best to take a maximalist approach to at least have them on record.
There’s also the troubling trend in multiple deployments that puts greater stress on individual soldiers. Though today’s excesses of defense spending are real, it’s also true that the number of active duty personnel has shrunk by 517,191 between 1991 and 2011. In the midst of two wars, that means soldiers spending more time away from home and more of them returning with stress-related injuries.
In any case, the “Shooter” should have known that he was entitled to VA benefits, with or without his disability claims being approved. The odd thing about his situation is not that he was denied a pension he didn’t actually qualify for, or that the DoD hasn’t created a witness protection program (yet!). It’s that a hero suffering from serious stress-related injuries seems to have been unable to fulfill 20 years of duty.