California is currently home to 1.9 million veterans. Sixty-three percent of those veterans are 55 years old and older. With Americans now living longer, there has been a dramatic rise in the demand for elder health care and other services. Veterans’ benefits, available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (USDVA) and the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet), can help veterans of any age but may be especially important to those nearing or in retirement.
For older individuals, veterans’ benefits could mean the difference between a secure retirement and having to watch every dollar spent. Benefits could also mean the difference between quality health care, including free eyeglasses and hearing aids, and undiagnosed and untreated health problems. Unfortunately, only about 15% of eligible California veterans are taking advantage of their compensation and pension benefits and less than 40% are using their health care benefits.
Mike Pagan was just 20 years old when he enlisted. He spent four years in the Navy and two in the Reserves. He was deployed and assigned to a carrier group that operated in the South China Sea. Mike was involved with storage of ammunition, security of magazines. He also worked on replenishment of supplies, which involved dismantling great loads of materials and bombs. After retraining in special operations was deployed on a small class ship and operated off the coast of Vietnam, north and south of Da Nang, as troop support and rescue.
While working on the ship one day, Mike was hit on the side of the head by a heavy piece of metal packing material tossed by one of his shipmates. “My head hurt for a few days,” said Mike, “but I didn’t give it much more thought after that.” Now, at the age of 63, Mike suffers from repeated ear infections and a loss of hearing. He wonders whether his health issues are related to the injury he sustained on the carrier that day and wishes he had applied for his health benefits with he got out of the service.
Many older veterans are beginning to feel the effects of injuries sustained during military service decades ago or are finding their symptoms have gotten worse with age. Some Vietnam veterans, whose average age is now between 60 and 65, are being diagnosed with ailments associated with their exposure to Agent Orange—the toxic herbicide used to defoliate the jungle between 1962 and 1971. The USDVA now presumes that 14 diseases and disorders found in “boots-on-the-ground” veterans and certain other Vietnam veteran groups are the result of Agent Orange exposure.
“It would be easy for a doctor to overlook Agent Orange exposure as the cause of a patient’s Type 2 diabetes when genetic and lifestyle risk factors are present. The post traumatic stress disorder at the root of a veteran’s chronic depression could also be missed,” said CalVet Secretary Peter Gravett. “That’s why it’s so important for veterans of every era to make doctors aware of their military history when being evaluated, diagnosed, and treated,” he said. Confusion is one of the reasons veterans don’t file for their benefits. What benefits are available? Is there an application time limit? Does a disability have to be combat-related to quality for benefits? Can a disability rating be upgraded or a disability rating denial be appealed? What benefits are available to veteran family members?
These and other benefit questions can be answered by CalVet or by the veteran’s County Veteran Service Office. Both organizations can also help veterans complete and submit the often confusing and frustrating benefit applications.
Mike recently contacted CalVet. The department is now helping him determine the veteran health and disability benefits he may be entitled to, including free hearing aids. When asked whether he had any advice for veterans now coming home, Mike said, “Yeah, talk to someone about your benefits and take advantage of them as soon as you can.”
For answers to benefits or other veteran-related questions, visit the CalVet web site at www.calvet.ca.gov or call 877-741-8532. For the location of the nearest CVSO, visit www.cacvso.org, click on “Contact Us,” and then click on the veteran’s county of residence.