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Vets for truth

This time, these local vets are fighting for better treatment

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Based on the military's own numbers, as many of one in four veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Yet only a minority of veterans' hospitals offer specialized treatment for it.

ON A MISSION: :  Roger Hart (left) is a member of Veterans United for Truth, and Russ Weed is treasurer. The two Santa Marians have joined with other Central Coast veterans and groups in a suit that they hope will change the way Veterans Affairs handles healthcare for military members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • ON A MISSION: : Roger Hart (left) is a member of Veterans United for Truth, and Russ Weed is treasurer. The two Santa Marians have joined with other Central Coast veterans and groups in a suit that they hope will change the way Veterans Affairs handles healthcare for military members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

# In 2005, the Veterans Administration acknowledged a backlog of 350,000 disability claims. It's now estimated at 600,000.

What can a handful of aging Korea and Vietnam vets on the Central Coast possibly do about national issues like the ones listed above?

They decided they could sue.

Led by three salty old guys--one from San Luis Obispo, one from Santa Maria, and one from Santa Barbara--two advocacy groups and some veterans filed what they hope will be a successful class-action suit last summer against the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In January, they won their first victory. It was only a preliminary skirmish--a federal judge agreed with the vets that a civil court has jurisdiction and the veterans had standing to sue--but it could have a big impact for hundreds of thousands of veterans.

Their ongoing suit claims that the federal health system wrongly denies mental health treatment to some soldiers, including those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Our average age is 75," guffawed Bob Handy, USN (Ret.) of Santa Barbara. "We're not afraid of the bastards. For a group of old farts like us to take on something like this is pretty unique. A lot of guys our age would be out vegetating."

Handy, 75, is chairman. Sanford (Sandy) Cook of San Luis Obispo, 72, is vice-chairman. Russ Weed of Santa Maria, 75, is treasurer of Veterans United for Truth (VUFT).

In a sitcom, Handy would be cast as an Irish bartender. His thatch of white hair spilling down to his gold-rimmed glasses, his plump rosy cheeks, and his jovial manner give the suspicion that his mother was born in Ireland. She was.

Treasurer Weed was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. He resembles Handy so closely that people confuse the two--but unlike the chairman, Weed combs his hair and remains determinedly quiet.

"I'm a money man," he says, though VUFT operates on a light beer budget.

Cook was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. His receding hairline and lantern chin give his face a certain aerodynamic appearance, which, together with darkened lenses in his glasses, suggests an aging Uncle Duke of Doonesbury.

Together, the trio looks like two Wilford Brimleys and a Jack Nicholson, and they are just as cantankerous: "We are war veterans who have come to believe that both serving military and veterans are being treated shamefully," they thunder in their basic flyer, which bills themselves as: "A non-partisan, veterans organization dedicated to action in their support, not just rhetoric."

Cook writes VUFT's bi-weekly newsletter, Sound Off, sprinkling each edition's fire-breathing editorial with quotes from the Founding Fathers, Machiavelli, Douglas MacArthur, or Lao Tzu's Art of War. The group takes no stand on current military involvements, but pointedly calls for "truth in justification for war" and "truth in recruiting," along with truth in delivery of benefits.

Cook devotes even more space to an unending river of little-publicized atrocities befalling military personnel and vets: the VA not keeping track of suicides, armor not reaching American soldiers, rising medical fees and deductibles, tours extended from 12 to 15 months, National Guard units unprepared for combat, desertions rising, army lawyers slamming the disability system, etc. etc.

"I try not to print the things everyone knows," Cook said with a smile. He estimates that the newsletter reaches more than 2,000 readers, most through the VUFT web site.

The group came together in 2005 to lobby in Washington, DC, and Sacramento for veterans and to document reports of increasing strain on a military called on to fight long-term foreign wars.

The VUFT leaders met each other earlier in an unlikely venue for vets: the veterans caucus of the California Democratic Party. Handy is still a party director representing the Central Coast.

"In 2004, we started talking to officers and [non-commissioned-officers] in all branches," he said recently at a Santa Maria coffee shop. He was surrounded by Cook, Weed, and Santa Maria VUFT member Roger Hart as diners filed past, paying the group no mind.

The vets had heard reports about reservists' difficulty in returning to their jobs after their tours, backlogs in approval of disability claims, delays in medical treatment, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder cases misclassified as pre-existing personality problems, a condition ineligible for VA assistance. That's not to mention a spike in accounts of suicide, especially by National Guardsmen and reservists.

"Some of my son's friends weren't getting their jobs back," Handy remembered.

His son, John, 47, is a Kosovo and Afghanistan vet, due to embark soon for Iraq.

"If a company says it's a hardship to take them back, they can just state it. Most returnees don't have a lawyer," Handy said.

Cook, a walking encyclopedia on regulations, noted another barrier vets must vault: "The Department of Justice has 30 months to respond after your complaint goes to the Department of Labor. Who can wait that long?"

"Let's say I'm sick in Northern California," Weed took over. "The closest VA hospital could be four to five hours away. You should be able to go to your local hospital."

With many bases closed in the waves of federal cost cutting, vets must travel farther than ever before.

"Guys are coming back with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and it doesn't show up right away," added Hart, a shaven-headed Vietnam vet with a salt-and-pepper mustache. "The reason it's not addressed is because it wasn't identified on discharge."

As the vets caucus collected data, a Sacramento-area vet met with Maj. General James L. Williams, commander of the Fourth Marine Division at Camp Pendleton. Williams told of a Marine who had to resort to demonstrating in front of a hospital to get help for his son's broken shoulder. Williams urged formation of a non-partisan activist group.

At Vandenberg Air Force Base recently for a VUFT fund-raising event, Williams confirmed the encouragement he had offered.

"Hopefully there will be a chapter of VUFT in every state," said the tall and imposing officer. "Any of these veterans groups helping our legislators to think is a good thing. There are two types of groups: the more passive and the aggressive. I am more interested in the aggressive approach. I call it the 'stay in their face' approach. It's all about that young man and woman who is serving America."

At the 2005 state Democratic convention, the veterans discussed what they had heard. Their reports were so similar and so troubling that they made a fateful decision.

"We realized that veterans' issues were non-partisan," Handy said. "So we founded VUFT. By then we had Republicans, Independents, Decline to State, Greens, everything."

Even before completing legal incorporation and wrangling with IRS over nonprofit status, they began lobbying.

Their first objective, authored by Cook, was AB 2750, the Wartime Shared Sacrifice Act. Twelve VUFT members collared Santa Barbara Assemblyman Pedro Nava and convinced him to introduce the measure, which would establish an independent state commission to look into the problems of California veterans.

"The states must step up where the feds are failing," Cook editorialized in Sound Off.

They got four co-sponsors and got the measure onto the floor of the Assembly in early 2006. It sailed through both houses by a combined vote of 117-0 but was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, because, he huffed, they already had a commission.

"After we talked to the officers and NCO's, and then the governor vetoed it, it pissed me off," Handy roared.

"The heads of the California National Guard and Air National Guard are political appointees," Weed groused. "They didn't want investigations."

The group returned to Sacramento to support tax relief for vets and to oppose state legislation that would have barred vets and their Post Traumatic Stress Disorder cases from county mental health facilities. They helped a stranded Iraq vet who had come to California for a job only to see it evaporate. And they fielded phone calls, letters, and e-mails from across the nation. As a result, the California chapter totals more than 500 members, and new VUFT chapters are organizing in North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, Colorado, Minnesota, Florida, Washington, Arizona, and Puerto Rico.

The suit

In the spring of 2007, Disabled Rights Advocates, a Berkeley nonprofit, teamed with blue-chip San Francisco law firm Morrison & Foerster to prepare a class-action lawsuit against the VA based on repeated failures to provide medical and mental care to returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

They needed only plaintiffs, but it would have to be somebody who would be fearless against potential bureaucratic retaliation. They couldn't use a weak-kneed plaintiff.

"I knew the DRA people, so they called us," Handy recalled.

VUFT signed on immediately, along with Veterans for Common Sense, based in Washington, DC.

The 73-page filing, Disabled American Veterans vs. Nicholson, was unveiled in July. (R. James Nicholson is secretary of Veterans Affairs.) It targeted VA's "unconscionable" waiting list, inadequate services, and long delays in treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, "the signature problem" of returning vets.

Gordon P. Erspamer of Morrison & Foerster leads the legal team, working pro bono.

"This isn't a case about isolated problems or the type of normal delays and administrative hassles we all occasionally experience with bureaucracies," he said. "This case is founded on the virtual meltdown of the VA's capacity to care for men and women who served their country bravely and honorably, were severely injured, and are now being treated like second-class citizens.

"Our review of the case literature shows no comparable cases," Erspamer told New Times. "Health care has been a problem for years. No one has ever figured out a way to address it."

The suit sought no damages, but rather endeavors to stop what Erspamer said are repeated violations of a federal law passed in 1988 that guarantees two years of health care for returning vets.

On Dec. 15, just three days after the House Committee on Veterans Affairs induced a VA official to admit they don't even collect nationwide data on veterans' suicides, VA made its response to the suit.

The agency did not argue the merits, but said that civil courts have no authority, that the 1988 law doesn't mandate two years of medical care, but only what the agency can afford, and claimed the plaintiff groups had no right to sue.

If those who launched the lawsuit aren't happy with the system, a DOJ attorney was quoted telling the court, they have the option of taking it up with Congress or the VA.

VUFT was outraged.

"What the VA is essentially saying is that the VA could decide to put all veterans' claims on ice for 10 years and then just flip a coin, and that there would be nothing a veteran could do about it," Handy exploded. "This continues its shameful attacks on veterans, reinforcing the view held by many that the government considers veterans to be second-class citizens. Every veteran and every citizen in our country should be appalled."

On Jan. 11, Judge Samuel Conti, an 85-year-old World War II veteran appointed by Richard Nixon, gave the green light for the suit to be heard on its merits. He also overruled VA's contention that it was required to provide only as much health care as its budget allowed.

Niki Baker, public affairs specialist at the VA's West Los Angeles Health Care System, later told New Times: "The VA does not comment on cases in litigation."

Handy's reaction after his victory was uncharacteristically subdued. He was happy, but not totally surprised by the judge, he said.

"Because of him being a World War II Marine, I came out of the courtroom with a comfortable feeling," he explained. "Even though he's considered one of the most conservative, he seemed like a reasonable person.

"I think we're making progress, we're winning skirmishes," Handy continued. "Eventually we will come out on top because what we have on our side is what's right."

In Santa Maria, Weed wasn't surprised either: "I'm one of those people who thinks that if somebody isn't doing their job, they ought to."


Contact freelancer John McReynolds through the editor at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

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