John F. is a Vietnam veteran. He graduated high school in 1967, where he was a baseball standout, and enlisted in the U.S. Army at the height of the Vietnam War. Like many returning combat vets, John came home to little fanfare and went about picking up where he left off before he enlisted.
I ran into John a few years back in a Michigan bar less than a mile from the high school where he graduated. It was a Friday night - perch night. I hadn't seen John since the early 1970's when we both returned from Vietnam. But John was excited to see me.
"Hey man," he said, approaching the table where I was sitting with my mom, who loved Friday night perch fries. "Have you applied for your Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) benefits yet? You can get a couple thousand a month," he continued.
"Really?," I responded, " But I don't think I have any issues with that kind of thing, John."
"It doesn't matter," he said excitedly. "All you have to do is go to this counseling program for two weeks and then you can get you benefits. Nothing to it. You ought to go."
"Thanks, John," I mumbled as he wandered off into another room.
I know Ray from the gym in Denver, CO where we both workout. Ray is there everyday. He drives a Harley Davidson motorcycle with American and Vietnamese flags flying alongside his rear luggage rack. He wears a bandana when he's riding on the stationary bike. It bears the yellow, green, and red colors of the Vietnam Service Medal.
I approached Ray one day and told him that I'd been in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in 1969-70 and asked him about his service. Instead of telling me where he was located or the name of his unit, he asked, "Are you getting your PTSD benefits yet?"
"No," I replied.
"Well then you ought to go over to the Veterans Administration (VA) office at Lowry (a former Air Force Base nearby) and sign up for the sessions." And then just as John had told me in Michigan he said, "It'll just take a couple of weeks of group (therapy)."
According to the Army Times, the VA says that about 400,000 veterans receive PTSD-related benefits today. About 150,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are receiving treatment for PTSD, but only about 80,000 are receiving disability benefits -- a disparity that might vanish as a result of what VA officials are calling a "liberalizing" of the claims process.
While it is undeniable that many veterans suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and need and deserve compensation and treatment, it is also evident that many veterans, some who've been out of the war zone and living normal lives for 30 or 40 years, are finding out that VA disability payments offer up a nice supplement to Social Security, ordinary military retirement, or civilian pension funds that are inadequate or non-existent.
Andy lives just outside of Tucson, AZ where for many years he worked as a corrections officer at a state operated juvenile facility just north of the city. Recently retired, he found himself with time on his hands and the prospect of finding new work unlikely.
"I'm putting in for PTSD benefits," he told me recently in a phone call.
"But you don't have PTSD," I replied.
"All I know," he continued," is that my sister gets PTSD benefits and she was AWOL (absent without leave) most of the time she was in the Army. If she can get it, so can I."