as published by New Haven Register, By Mary E. O’Leary | April 06, 2015
NEW HAVEN >> More than four decades after he first showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, Vietnam War veteran Conley Monk Jr. still is waiting for approval of medical coverage and, more recently, disability benefits, from the Veterans Administration.
“We are literally in the military’s latest Catch-22,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Monday at a press conference announcing a class-action lawsuit to help rectify one of the multiple issues still in play for Monk and thousands like him.
The suit was brought against Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald and the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
It asks that the VA promptly decide disability compensation appeals that have been pending more than a year, when the case involves a veteran facing medical or financial hardship.
A longtime New Haven resident, Conley was given an other than honorable military discharge 45 years ago tied to his use of morphine, which he said was a way to ease the symptoms of PTSD. After his discharge, Conley worked for decades as a counselor at Addiction Prevention Treatment (APT) and counseled the homeless at Columbus House.
PTSD wasn’t recognized as a medical disorder until 1980, long after Conley had left the Marine Corps in 1970.
Also, a statute requiring a physical examination, if a vet can reasonably claim to have PTSD prior to an administrative discharge, didn’t go into effect until a few years ago.
“He is the victim of an unfair less than honorable discharge, which in turn is the basis for the denial of disability benefits and they are also denying him a prompt review of that unfair erroneous denial of benefits by inordinate delay,” Blumenthal said.
A call was placed with the Department of Veterans Affairs seeking comment.
The senator was speaking at the Yale Law School, where its Veterans Legal Services Clinic brought the suit against McDonald on behalf of Monk and an estimated 300,000 others whose appeals on disability benefits are pending.
“As complicated as it may seem, his situation epitomizes the current absolute injustice of delay and denial. Two years from the point of denial to even the beginning of appeals is absolutely unacceptable,” the senator said of Monk.
Blumenthal said “the process is now so riddled with error on the merits of these claims, a very high percentage will be granted on appeal.”
“These benefits are not handouts. They are monies due to these veterans for service-connected disability,” Blumenthal said.
He said the average veterans wait two years for the regional offices to certify and transfer their appeals.
“In effect, the VA is blocking the courthouse door,” Blumenthal said.
The senator predicted that the number of appeals will expand when 1 million veterans leave active duty over the next four years. “This issue of disability claims ... will only grow more serious,” he said.
Monk was officially diagnosed with PTSD in 2011 and shortly thereafter applied for disability benefits. He filed a notice of disagreement with the rejection in July 2013.
Monk’s life was complicated further in January 2014, when the family home in New Haven he shared with his sister, Gloria Monk Henderson, and his late mother was damaged when the flame from a blowtorch used by a plumber set off a fire in the walls.
Henderson, who was a medical technician for 42 years at the Veterans Affairs medical center in West Haven, is living at Patriot Landing in Rocky Hill, while Monk moved to an apartment in West Haven. Fifteen months later, they still don’t have a settlement with the insurance company.
“It was devastating to us,” Henderson said of the fire. “We were homeless,” she said, staying with relatives until they found housing.
Henderson is also a veteran, having signed up for military service a month apart from her brother in 1968.
Monk is also part of a class-action suit against the Department of Defense brought by the clinic last spring, which seeks a review of all Vietnam-era veterans diagnosed with PTSD, but who received other than honorable discharges.
After lobbying by Blumenthal and others, former U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in August issued guidelines that he promised would make it easier for Vietnam veterans to upgrade their discharges and to make sure the results are consistent across the military services.
The clinic’s suit against the Defense Department is currently remanded, but it will be activated again, if the process approved by Hagel doesn’t bear fruit. The senator in an earlier interview said 860,000 Vietnam veterans suffered from undiagnosed PTSD and more than 70,000 were given “other than honorable” discharges.
Yale Law student intern Julia Shu said delays in appeals of disability benefits in the VA are common, but the worst involve initial appeals. “The VA is failing veterans,” Shu said.
She said veterans have to wait, on average, four years for the VA to act on these initial appeals.
Shu said disability benefits for Monk “would dramatically improve” a number of his medical conditions.
In addition to PTSD, Monk said he recently suffered a stroke, resulting in legal blindness. He has ailments from exposure to Agent Orange, including diabetes mellitus, hepatitis and hypertension, diseases that are presumptively service-connected for veterans who served in Vietnam.
“I want to get resolution not only for myself, but for veterans undergoing a similar problem,” Monk said.
Until the VA rules on his appeal however, “He is stuck,” Shu said.
Shu said for veterans who make it all the way through an appeal, 25.2 percent in 2013 were allowed and some 45.6 percent were sent back to the regional offices for reconsideration.
Blumenthal said these veterans need these benefits to avoid homelessness and medical suffering.
He said the suit’s request that a decision be made for Monk, either granting him benefits or certifying his appeal within 30 days, is reasonable.
The senator said if then long delays continue, he will introduce legislation establishing mandatory time periods for VA appeals consideration.
He said one-third of the 1.3 million uninsured, non-elderly veterans in this country live in poverty.
“We are talking about people who need these benefits,” Blumenthal said.