Wounded veterans get triple the compensation when they get help navigating the complex process

By Matthew D. LaPlante
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake



Within six weeks of arriving in Vietnam, Brent Messick had taken bullets in his chest and stomach and fragmentation in his right arm and hand.
    "I wasn't there too long," Messick said. "Sometimes it don't take too long."
    Still, it was long enough to change his life - leaving him wounded in ways that evolved and worsened in the years that followed his 1966 homecoming. But without someone to help him navigate the complex bureaucracy of the federal Veterans Affairs benefits system, Mesick languished for decades with only the minimal compensation he had been granted in the months after he returned from the war.
    He wasn't alone. A recent study by the Institute for Defense Analysis shows that wounded veterans who approach the V.A. without professional assistance receive on average about one-third of the compensation that those who are represented by a lawyer or service organization like the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) get.
    "That's not surprising at all," said Eric McGinnis, the DAV representative who helped Mesick get appropriate compensation for his injuries after the V.A. initially rated his long-term disabilities at 0 percent. "If you know the proper vernacular, a few simple phrases, it makes things a lot easier. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a vet who knows exactly the right things to say and do."
    McGinnis' experience in that arena is both professional and personal. The Army veteran came to work for the DAV after the organization helped him obtain compensation after the V.A. initially told him he'd get none. "It's a common story," he said.
    Complicating matters further, McGinnis said, is a compensation process that requires veterans to approach the V.A., openly advertising their own physical and psychological wounds in order to receive benefits.
    "These aren't always people who are comfortable advocating for themselves," McGinnis said.
    Indeed, Mesick said he never considered asking the V.A. to reassess his disability rating, even as the long-term physical consequences of his wounds required multiple surgeries and the psychological toll of his experience began to affect his life at home and work.
    "My mindset was, there were a lot of guys worse off than me," Mesick said. "I'd made it back home alive - and I was happy for that."
    But when a coworker, a Navy veteran, finally encouraged him to seek help and compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder, Mesick relented and, after starting PTSD counseling, applied for an increase in his disability rating.
    "But that turned out to be a can of worms," Mesick said of the V.A.'s initial decision not to grant him a single penny for his PTSD. "The letter came while I was at work. My wife didn't want to show it to me because she knew what would happen."
    Mesick was fed up. "When you have all kinds of paperwork, people saying 'give us proof' and all sorts of other things thrown at you, it's easier to just say 'to hell with it' and go down the road."
    But Debbie Smith, Messick's counselor in Ogden, knew better than to let her client just give up. She contacted State Department of Veterans Affairs Director Terry Schow, who put Mesick in contact with McGinnis at the DAV.
    Within weeks, Mesick had gotten a new review - and a more reasonable compensation offer.
    "Things came around full circle," Schow said. "Everyone banded around this guy to fix the problem. But the trouble is that there are so many other people like him."
    Schow said it would be nice if the system weren't so adversarial and complex that veterans needed help from outside groups to obtain just compensation for their wounds.
    "But it is the way it is," he said. "The process is so involved and complicated, that I think it's just wise to do that. And so we encourage everyone to get assistance from a service organization."
    Veterans seeking help with V.A. disability claims may contact the Utah Department of the Disabled Veterans of America by calling 801-359-8168 or visiting www.vfwutah.org