As a retired Marine, I appreciate the recognition we give our veterans each November. These gestures of gratitude mean a lot to those who have served. But, respectfully, we need to provide more than gestures to our older veterans. We need to help them get the care and benefits they’re entitled to, because they won’t ask for it themselves.
I serve as director of veterans’ health and support services at Capital Caring Health, the largest nonprofit provider of health, advanced illness, hospice and at-home care services in the Washington, Maryland and Virginia region. We provide compassionate hospice care, but much more. We leverage relationships with state-level Veterans Affairs offices, accredited agencies, and established veterans’ organizations to help former military members get the care, benefits and assistance they need, earned and deserve. We’re helping veterans who have never thought of themselves first. They were raised not to ask for help, but they need someone to advocate for them.
Vietnam veterans, in particular, have unique challenges. For example, there are 14 presumptive diseases associated with Agent Orange. Many of these veterans don’t know they’re entitled to benefits. For example, we recently worked with a veteran whose wife contacted their local Veterans Affairs office to get her husband enrolled for benefits. They had just experienced a house fire and used up their savings to repair the damage. This man hadn’t seen a doctor in more than a decade, and he was totally bed-bound. His wife was unemployed as she cared for her husband 24 hours a day. We connected him with a doctor — an Air Force veteran no less — who diagnosed him with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is a presumptive disease associated with military service and, therefore, qualified him for benefits. We then had a veterans’ services officer go to the man’s home and complete his application for a service-connected disability and submit to Veterans Affairs. Neither the man nor his wife would have had the time or energy to take these steps. This veteran got a 100 percent service-connected designation for veterans’ compensation benefits and received monthly, tax-free financial assistance. It made a tremendous difference.
As another example, an oncology nurse navigator at one of the hospitals we work with once asked me if I could meet with one of his patients. This man had prostate cancer and stage 4 lung cancer and yet he was still working at a local grocery store, because he had to. Both of those conditions are presumptive conditions to Agent Orange exposure, but he didn’t know that. We arranged for a veterans service representative from the Department of Veterans Services in his home state to submit his claim after explaining that they would do all the heavy lifting and he’d just need to sign the paper allowing them to act on his behalf. And sure enough, in less than a month, he secured the benefits he had rightly earned, and — well into his 80s — he could finally retire.
Older veterans are often quick to say, “I’m doing OK, don’t worry about me.” But if we don’t, who will? We all need to ensure older veterans get the care and compensation they earned and deserve, so they and their families receive the support they need when it matters most.
Retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Benhoff serves as director of veterans’ health and support services at Capital Caring Health in Falls Church, Virginia.