Warrior Shares VA Disability Benefits Journey to Help Other Veterans
Army veteran Claude Boushey had chronic knee, leg, and back pain, hearing loss, and struggled with the invisible wounds of war after 25 years in the military. Claude served proudly until his retirement in 2008. He put his physical and mental well-being on the line for the benefit of his country. When he left the service, he had every reason to expect the country he served so honorably would help him when he returned home.
Claude’s plight is not a unique one. Many post-9/11 veterans returned home after multiple deployments, changed and sometimes broken.
Besides the most severe injuries veterans can face from combat, there are also the routine aches and pains that come from excessive running, carrying heavy gear, sleeping on the ground, as well as jumping from planes and rappelling from helicopters and buildings.
There are the headaches, confusion, and inability to focus that often accompanies traumatic brain injury (TBI). There are also the invisible wounds. The nightmares, the anxiety, the social disconnect that comes from reliving trauma. Yet, they come home ready to serve their families and communities the best they can but do sometimes need financial and/or medical help.
For Claude, he spent his military career in aviation, working his way from helicopter mechanic to helicopter pilot. He deployed multiple times. During his first deployment to Iraq, his helicopter crashed into a swamp, injuring his spine. His back injuries from the crash required four surgeries and eight months of rehab. During his recovery, he also found out that a fellow Army pilot who had helped rescue him had died in another crash. Claude would never get to thank him.
Even after those traumas, 15 months later Claude returned to Iraq to continue the mission. He gave everything he had to the service of the country, and wanted assistance for the injuries he endured in his quarter century of service.
“I didn’t really think much of it,” Claude said about filing for VA disability benefits. “There was a helicopter crash. I have all these injuries, and the scars to prove it.”
The Benefits Journey Begins
In August 2008, after retiring and still dealing with his visible and invisible wounds, Claude filed for VA disability compensation. In February 2009, he got a response.
“I still remember the day I got my disability letter,” Claude said. “My wife actually opened it, and said, “You probably need to sit down for this one.’”
He was denied ratings for tinnitus and hearing loss in addition to many others. Claude did qualify for some, but in total he only received 10%. This, after sustaining significant injuries and serving for 25 years. “It was probably one of the worst days of my life,” Claude said.
Claude struggled to understand, feeling like his sacrifice wasn’t acknowledged. He saw the scars on his body every day and questioned how he could give 100% and get back 10%?
“I served 25 years. I did everything the military asked of me,” Claude said. “I deployed to Haiti. I deployed to Bosnia, and two times to Iraq. Even after my helicopter crashed, I went back to Iraq. I retired honorably. And that response from the VA really set me back for a long time.”
Claude then embarked on a decade-long odyssey to get the benefits he earned during his service by appealing his initial rating decision.
Navigating the VA Disability Process
When it comes to VA disability benefits, a lot of factors go into a rating decision. The most important thing to know is that the injury or illness you’re seeking compensation for must be service-connected. Establishing service-connection can be difficult and is often the first hurdle to pass when receiving VA benefits.
WWP aims to help veterans navigate this confusing and sometimes daunting process.
“Our goal is not to get every veteran 100%, because each person’s experience was different, and each person’s service was different.” said WWP Regional Benefits Director Susie Thompson. “But we review their records, including military service records, service treatment records, and current medical records, to get the full picture of what's going on. We look at their treatment history and current diagnoses and help them get service-connection for those disabilities.”
The VA-accredited representatives in WWP Benefits Services Team can help warriors file for VA disability benefits, appeal or increase a VA decision, prepare for medical exams, and advise on additional benefits that warriors may be entitled to.
“It's really helpful to have an advocate by your side,” Susie said. “Obviously, [the veterans] are experts on their medical history and their service history, but we're experts on the VA rating system and disability benefits.”
Fortunately, the VA is trying to alleviate some of the obstacles and delays Claude experienced with the appeals process. The Veteran Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act (AMA), passed in 2017, improves the appeals process, offering three review lanes at the Board of Veterans Appeals, two different review options at the local regional office, all of which provide more timely claim resolutions.
WWP’s VA-accredited representatives can assist veterans in deciding which review or appeal lane is best and how to proceed. “There are many options available for review now,” Susie said. “The VA recently revamped the appeals process. It has streamlined the process and offers more choices for the veteran.
So, instead of just defaulting to filing an appeal to the Board of Veterans Appeals, which could take years to seek a resolution, veterans can now file a supplemental claim or a higher-level review at the local VA regional office and receive a decision within six months. Pursuing these local review options also allows for more thorough development of the condition and ensures the VA has completed their duty to assist obligations.”
Managing expectations, setting goals, and maintaining communication with the VA are important components of filing for disability benefits and appealing decisions. While it may be less arduous than it used to be, it can still be a burdensome task that veterans don’t have to do alone.
“Wounded Warrior Project will stay with you throughout the entire duration of your claim,” Susie said. “Our continued goal is to help veterans achieve the benefits they have earned in a manner that honors their service.”
Finding the Right Support
After receiving his initial VA decision, Claude appealed and reapplied. After nearly eight years, he increased his rating from 10% to 30% due to his leg injuries. It was a tough road to get to that point, and he was still dealing with constant back pain, hearing loss, and PTSD.
Claude eventually connected with a benefits representative from WWP who wouldn’t let him fall through the cracks.
“She came in and did her magic,” Claude said.
She helped him collect the needed evidence to move forward, including an examination with his civilian doctor, and assisted with determining a strategy to move forward with the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA). She got the ball rolling quickly, and soon, Claude attended a BVA hearing with his wife and his WWP Benefits advocate by his side.
In April 2018, he got his response from VA. He didn’t have to sit down for this one. He was rated at 70%, and his hearing loss was recognized.
“It kind of gave me some closure,” Claude said. “It finally gave me a sense of closing the door on my military career after such a long process.”
Claude’s benefits journey was long and frustrating, but there are things he learned along the way that he wants to share with other veterans to help ease the process for them.
“Don’t fight alone,” Claude said. “I would definitely say get a claims representative who knows what they’re doing and who has a good reputation. Talk to people who are experts.”
Living the Logo
Serving other veterans has become a big part of Claude’s life. He still works full-time, is a husband, father, grandfather, and dog lover, but he always makes time to help other veterans.
During his dark times dealing with his physical injuries, PTSD, and struggles with VA, Claude leaned on WWP’s free programs and services, as well as the support of other veterans he met through WWP.
“I’ve made a lot of friends with Wounded Warrior Project,” Claude said. “A lot of people there have kept me sane and kept me going during this quest.”
Now he’s paying it forward. He currently serves as a Peer Support Group leader, and volunteers as a driver for a VA health care facility in his community. He doesn’t hold grudges, but he also doesn’t want to see other veterans take the same frustrating path he did. The most important thing a veteran can do is to realize help is available, and they deserve it.
“If it wasn’t for somebody on my side, advocating for me, I don’t know if I could have continued this fight,” Claude said.
Call 888.WWP.ALUM or click here to get registered with WWP.
Click here to learn more about the Benefits Services team
Contact: — Paris Moulden, Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 904.570.7910
About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.