For more than two decades, Chauncey Robinson has been waging war on behalf of himself and other veterans. The New York-based prisons’ ministry coordinator said that for too many veterans returning home means facing another battle – just on a more familiar front – as they struggle to obtain the rights due them in exchange for their service to their country.
“Veterans are disenfranchised, disowned, neglected and abused; they’re treated like peasants by their own government,” the 53-year-old Desert Storm veteran said. “We love our country but does our country love us?”
The answer seems to be a resounding, “No,” he said. “Veterans are basically not taken care of when they return home.”
That is why Robinson has pursued a letter-writing campaign to congressional representatives and others, and engaged in other advocacy. Moreover, it is why he joined a group of veterans who filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government claiming that the Department of Veterans Affairs denied veterans their constitutional and contractual rights.
Gary Kendall, of Boise, Idaho, filed the first iteration of the complaint in the District Court in Idaho, in 2006. The latest 61-page version filed June 28, 2012, alleges, among other things, that employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs “delay, deny, and withhold proper medical care so as to … accelerate the deaths of Veterans …”
“The nation has increasingly been depriving veterans of their rights in the interest of saving money,” Kendall, 61, said.
“I got tired of watching my fellow veterans and friends die,” he told the AFRO. “Even though veterans are promised the best available medical care, the VA is often years behind in the quality and currentness of quality care. And there are increasing numbers of veterans who spend their lives in pain and misery or die waiting for medical care, and that has to be stopped.”
For example, Robinson said, he has been fighting the VA for proper benefits for 21 years. During that time, he alleges, his original claim files were destroyed. And, in 2012, after a Board of Veterans Appeals judge ordered that he be examined by a cardiologist to determine his eligibility for total disability un-employability impairment benefits, not only were the tests not administered by a cardiologist, but the doctor issued a report with faulty information, including omitting that Robinson was on heart medication. Though Robinson’s lawyer sent a letter informing the VA of the flawed report, it was used in determining his benefits claim, anyway.
“It’s a blatant practice of fraud and abuse that the public needs to know about because a lot of young people are coming home [from deployment] and they and their families will go through the same thing,” Robinson said. “Our goal with this litigation is not just about [obtaining] punitive damages but also to force the government to clamp down on the Department of Veterans Affairs. … Right now it is rogue.”
Kenneth Beskin, Robinson’s attorney, and a former Social Security claims specialist who focuses on veterans’ cases, said the first experience with the VA is often “shocking.”
“The delays in the system are unbelievable. Not only it is backlogged, but it is so arbitrary from case to case,” he said. “I think they’re overwhelmed. They have so many cases that they’re afraid [they are] going to break the bank, so they fight everything and delay everything.”
But the dysfunction also has “a lot” to do with “incompetence and ineffectiveness,” he added. “Once the system gets bogged down there’s no incentive to clean it up.”
According to the VA Accountability Watch webpage of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the VA has recently experienced a “rash of preventable veteran deaths, infectious disease outbreaks, and benefit and construction delays” within the system.
Multiple VA Inspector General reports uncovered: hundreds of veteran patients who were exposed to HIV, Hepatitis, and other diseases due to unsanitary equipment or misuse of equipment; inappropriate shredding of benefit claims documents; lack of follow-up with patients at high risk of suicide; a deadly outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease; unclean facilities; at least 31 preventable deaths at VA medical centers throughout the country; and many more violations.
More egregiously, though many of those problems were due to “widespread mismanagement,” negligent VA employees and executives were rarely fired and some received bonuses, the reports found.
“As much as they (officials) talk about the dysfunction within the VA, no one seems to want to do anything about it,” Beskin said.
Recent legislation and statements by Washington leaders seem to suggest a renewed commitment to revitalizing the beleaguered agency. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller introduced the VA Management Accountability Act of 2014 to make it easier to demote or fire negligent VA executives; another bill implemented a five-year ban on performance bonuses for VA senior executive service employees and expanded tuition assistance for veterans. House and Senate lawmakers passed bills that would restore cuts to cost-of-living adjustments on military pensions. A bill was introduced to ensure that the benefits of veterans who die waiting for claims would be passed on to the individual’s heirs, and on March 5, the White House extended a successful job-training program for veterans that was due to expire at the end of March.
Meanwhile, Robinson and Kendall are continuing their fight on the legal front. On March 10, the U.S. Supreme Court denied their petition for the case to be heard, after it was rejected by lower courts. However, they have regrouped, and plan to refile the case with Robinson as the main petitioner. “They (Supreme Court justices) denied it because there’s a charge of genocide, treason, and violation of the RICO statutes, and we’ve come to the conclusion that no judge was going to preside over a case with that type of inflammatory language,” Robinson said.
They have also reached out to the United Nations. “We are prepared to go through world court authorities if necessary,” Robinson said. “We hope we don’t have to go there.”
Special to the AFRO