For the last six years, Idervan DaCosta has endured shortness of breath and pain in his lungs that feels like they are on fire. This happens every couple of months and lasts a few weeks at a time. DaCosta attributes it to inhaling toxins while sleeping yards away from burn pits in Afghanistan. But the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) denied his application for disability benefits for the condition. Now, the Marine veteran and Brookfield resident has more hope.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is investigating allegations of illegal employment practices at VA Connecticut Healthcare System connected to the hiring of seven employees—some in top management positions—who are all former co-workers of the system’s director. A separate complaint filed by a whistleblower to the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs alleges “gross misconduct” in the hiring of staff from the Manchester (New Hampshire) VA Medical Center. It says that “all management positions were pre-selected.”
“VA Connecticut is in turmoil,” wrote the whistleblower in an anonymous complaint filed in August and obtained by C-HIT. The complaints have put a spotlight on the management of Alfred A. Montoya Jr., who has been head of the West Haven VA for almost a year. Montoya was brought in from the Manchester (New Hampshire) VA Medical Center after years of upheaval in the delivery of health care at the West Haven VA, where surgeries were outsourced to Yale New Haven Hospital after deficiencies were found in sterile procedures.
Sergeant William Davidson had been struggling with mental health problems since his deployment to Afghanistan. When he didn’t attend at least one of his Connecticut National Guard drill weekends, the Guard declared him AWOL (absent without leave) and discharged him with a “bad paper” separation. Four months after his discharge, Davidson, 24, fatally shot himself. Davidson, who had two younger sisters, is one among thousands of veterans who die by suicide each year. Despite national goals to prevent veteran suicides, they occur at disproportionately higher rates than in the general population.
Every day for 10 months in 2012, Peter Antioho walked through dense, black smoke from an open burn pit on his Army base in Afghanistan. Human and medical waste, plastic water bottles, ammunition and chemicals were among the materials burned with diesel fuel 24 hours a day. Five years later, Antioho was diagnosed with an aggressive, terminal brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme. The West Point graduate and Berlin resident was 31 when he was diagnosed, young for this cancer. He was second in command at his base, but now, with symptoms that include memory loss and impaired vision, speech and motor function, he can’t work.
Growing up, Mary Louise Montini, 13, has often been angry, upset and on edge, just like her father, a veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Her experience isn’t unique. Children can develop their own mental illnesses as a result of their parents’ struggles with PTSD and other mental health disorders associated with their military service, professionals say. And there are few resources and programs targeted to veterans’ children, compared to children of active military. Experts say the treatment needs of veterans’ children will continue as their parents continue to rotate through deployments to conflicts around the world, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
A new federal law will allow hundreds of Connecticut veterans with “bad paper” discharges to be eligible for long-term mental health care for the first time, and thus reduce their suicide risk. U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., a co-sponsor of the law, said it will “change the lives of veterans.” The legislation was included in the federal budget signed last Friday by President Trump. The new law affects veterans with an “other than honorable (OTH)” discharge, a status increasingly given for minor offenses. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs usually denies benefits to veterans with OTH discharges, even though Congress stipulated in 1944 that only severe conduct that would lead to court martial and dishonorable discharges should disqualify veterans from basic VA care. Many veterans have maintained that their minor offenses were triggered by service-related mental health issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Under the new law, veterans with OTH discharges who either served in combat areas, were victims of military sexual trauma, or operated drones are eligible for VA mental health and behavioral health care.
A federal report has found that 62 percent of military personnel discharged for misconduct from 2011 through 2015 had been diagnosed with mental illnesses that could have caused their behaviors. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluded that the military failed to follow policies designed to prevent inappropriate discharge of service members with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The result is many veterans received less than honorable discharges, making them ineligible for health care, disability benefits, or education aid from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The GAO said 57,141 service members discharged for misconduct had been diagnosed up to two years before their release with conditions that included: PTSD, TBI, adjustment disorders, alcohol-related and substance abuse disorders, depression and anxiety. The conditions, which the GAO called “signature wounds” of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, can affect moods, thoughts and behaviors and may trigger activities such as drug use, insubordination, absence from the military without permission, and crimes, the report states.
A Connecticut veteran who has spent years trying to gain Agent Orange benefits for veterans who served in Korea in 1967 has persuaded the Veterans of Foreign Wars and two other veterans’ organizations to take his case before Congress. On Wednesday, VFW National Commander John A. Biedrzycki Jr. will ask Congress to pass a law requiring the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to grant VA health care and compensation to veterans who served in Korea in 1967 if they have illnesses linked to Agent Orange. Biedrzycki’s prepared testimony states that current VA rules exclude many veterans “who now suffer from diseases and illnesses that have been directly linked to the chemical defoliant.”
Carlos Fuentes, VFW senior legislative associate, said documents provided by Army veteran Eugene Clarke of Redding swayed the national organization to seek the benefits change through Congress. The documents include proof of test spraying of defoliants in Korea in 1967 and of veterans’ exposure to Korean government spraying. Fuentes said VFW efforts to convince the VA to change its policy have been unsuccessful.
The federal government will pay for disabled veterans now residing in assisted-living facilities, under a bill passed by Congress in December. But the measure doesn’t cover veterans who may move to such places in the future. Disabled veterans living at retirement homes, including those at Seacrest Retirement Center in West Haven, HighVue Manor in Hamden, and Mattatuck Health Care in Waterbury, were told in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that coverage of their housing was a mistake and would end. The coverage began in 2010. U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro obtained extensions for the Connecticut veterans who sought her help and she proposed the language in the bill approved that ensured their coverage would continue.
It has taken more than 40 years, but Connecticut veteran Conley Monk has won his battle to have his military discharge status upgraded and can now receive federal benefits. Monk, 66, and four other Vietnam War veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were granted upgrades by the Pentagon after filing a federal lawsuit in March 2014 against the Armed Forces. The veterans had received Other Than Honorable (OTH) discharges, which they contend were based on behaviors later attributed to PTSD. PTSD was not designated as a medical condition until 1980. The five veterans were given General Under Honorable Conditions discharges.