It’s been a rough six weeks. In a short span of time, I fired my literary agent, shattered my wrist ice skating at 20 mph (laugh it up, fuzzball, to quote the great Han Solo; I even played hockey and skate very well), finally lost my CAA agent after our producer for our movie deal took a job last fall with Sylvester Stallone, and had my lung damage issue flare up to delay my wrist surgery. My life was a really bad country song. Fortunately, my dog still loved me, and the surgery, when I finally had it, was a success 9 screws and a titanium plate later (if you saw the pictures on my twitter account). But don’t feel badly for me. Not. For. A. Second. This is just life. There are a lot of people who have it way worse, no matter how bad things may get. As a former Marine, there is only one way to live when times get hard – take the hits and keep moving forward. The alternative is to lie down and quit, and that’s something I’ll never do. But then in the midst of all of these stressors and chaos, the craziest thing happened – the VA informed me that they were finally covering the permanent lung damage I sustained in Fallujah, Iraq, from 2006 to 2007, about which I have written in two previous Townhall columns here. And it’s why this Broken Promises series now comes to an end, and why this column could be the most important thing I write with one objective in mind – to help other veterans.
A few months ago after Broken Promises Parts I & II were published, I received a call from a senior person at one of the regional claim centers. I’d thought it was because of the column (at least my ego thought it was, laughably – “I’m Matt Betley! Hear me roar!”) and the way that I’d lambasted the VA for mishandling my claim that I’d initiated in February 2018. Ironically, he hadn’t even heard about them. He’d just been told to call me after I insisted on speaking with a person after receiving my denial in writing. He was sincere, honest, and genuinely wanted to help. As a senior person in a position of authority, he wanted to ensure that 1) I knew exactly why the claim had been denied; and 2) that they’d received everything regarding my lung damage in originally considering the claim. A few days later, I had a lengthy conversation with him and an experienced VA claims adjuster, and I learned the following, which is what I hope all veterans take away from this piece.
The VA Schedule for Rating Disabilities is the result of a code written originally in 1945 after World War II. Stop and think about that one for a second. I don’t get surprised by much these days, but this one floored me for all of the obvious reasons it’s probably making your jaw drop as you read this. There has been an effort underway to revise this code, but it began in 2009 and hasn’t been completed. Additionally, several politicians like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D), Senator Ben Cardin (D), Rep. Brian Mast (R), and others have proposed legislation that “requires the military to track and accurately report every service members’ exposure to burn pits as a necessary first step toward getting the treatment and care they need and deserve.” But even that Burn Pits Accountability Act hasn’t been passed. Blame the speed of bureaucracy. The part that governs my lung damage as a result of exposure to Burn Pits or other Airborne Hazards in Iraq is still from 1945 in the catch-all category that includes everything from exercise-induced asthma to chronic bronchitis.
Once my mind processed the absurdity of a code written in 1945 to determine modern warfare disabilities, I was informed that the following items are the most important criteria for assessing lung-related illnesses:
- Daily inhalational or oral bronchodilator use (e.g., an inhaler such as Advair).
- Inhalational anti-inflammatory medication, which can be intermittent or constant.
- Intermittent or constant use of steroids such as Prednisone.
- Monthly visits to a physician for respiratory symptoms.
The next step was to gather the medical records for the dozens of doctor’s visits that I’d had in just the past three years and send them to him and the adjuster to make sure they had the full picture. It was at this point that I had the first glimmer of hope, since I already knew that I met every single criteria outlined above. I followed instructions like a good Marine and sent them everything they wanted, although to be honest, I’d sent a – but not all – of it before. Sure enough, a week or so later, I received an email stating that my lung damage in the form of chronic bronchitis and reactive airway disease was to be included in my disability rating. The official paperwork followed soon thereafter.
I had won, but it didn’t feel like a win. In fact, for reasons that hard to explain, although I’ll try, I felt sad because while I had triumphed in the paper chase, countless others never would. I’d just had the perseverance to fight my way through a byzantine and merciless process, refusing to yield in the face of constant rejections, negative information, and misleading statements. I thought about all of the other veterans out there, the 170k that signed up for the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, and I wondered if they’d have the dogged determination to figuratively fight City Hall. It’s a fight that I and any other veteran should never have to make, but the reality is that someone has to speak up and force the system to change, to make it easier for these types of disabilities to be diagnosed and included. I’m just one person, and these columns are my small attempt to force change. I just hope that by writing them that I’ve helped at least one veteran out there overcome the bureaucracy that weighs down the VA.
If you suffer from any lung-related illness connected to your service, my advice is simple: gather all of your records, contact the VA, follow the criteria and guidelines described in this column, get in the right mindset, prepare yourself, and start the process. It will be frustrating, it will test your patience, but in the end, it will be worth it. As hard as I’ve been on the VA, it is full of good people who want to do the right thing, who want to help veterans. It’s the system that ties their hands as much as it hinders veterans’ efforts. But once you learn how to navigate the process, you can force the VA to do the right thing, and ultimately, it will, because in the end, taking care of veterans who sacrificed for this great nation is all that matters.
Matthew Betley is a former Marine officer, a recovering alcoholic, and a political action thriller author of multiple novels from Simon & Schuster. His latest action-packed, intense roller coaster ride, RULES OF WAR, which is timely and occurs in the middle of the Venezuelan crisis (their healthcare makes the VA system look like the greatest coverage and most efficient organization in the history of the universe), comes out 16 July 2019. Follow him on Twitter at @MatthewBetley or find him on Facebook.