National Guard, Reserve troops
not told of access to VA medical care
by Marsha Austin and Nancy Lofholm
When Darin Overstreet returned from Iraq in June, no one told him he was eligible for medical care and other veterans benefits.
Overstreet, a technical sergeant in the Colorado Air National Guard, wasn't injured during his tour but said he worries about the long-term effects of vaccines and other medications he took before and during deployment. Knowing he has the option of seeking treatment at the Denver VA Medical Center would be reassuring, he said.
"I wouldn't mind having it," said the 34-year-old, who works in public affairs for the Guard. "Then if something came up ..."
Overstreet is among thousands of members of the Colorado National Guard and Reserve returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who are not seeking health care and other benefits they've earned and might need later, according to Department of Veterans Affairs officials, lawmakers and veterans' advocates.
Staff from Sen. Wayne Allard's office held a meeting with veterans and VA officials in Grand Junction this month after the VA complained it wasn't getting post-deployment access to Guard and Reserve troops.
These citizen soldiers don't come back to the same debriefing procedure that soldiers in active military units do, said Andy Merritt, Allard's state director and a former military tank officer.
National Guard and Reserve soldiers are given piles of paperwork, including sign-up materials for benefits, but they may not bother to wade through them once they are home.
"You're ready to see your family; that's what you're thinking about," Overstreet said.
And while many may be relying upon private insurance, VA officials said they are worried about Guard and Reserve soldiers who aren't informed of their military benefits or are reluctant to ask for help.
"I see it happen every day," said Dennis McMahill, a medical specialist with the Grand Junction VA Medical Center. "They are so independent. They don't want help. There is a lot of denial."
Since 2003, roughly 5,500 Colorado Guard and Reserve troops have returned from overseas deployments. It is not known how many are enrolled in the VA's benefit program, but agency officials - who have seen 609 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Colorado in the past 18 months - believe more recent veterans should be in the system.
Overstreet, like many Guard and Reserve soldiers, gets private health insurance through his employer. But if he doesn't enter the VA system now, it might be difficult for him to prove a duty-related illness that surfaces years from now, experts said.
Soldiers who forgo VA benefits also lose two years of free health care available to all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
"The longer people wait, the more complicated it is," said Merritt, of Allard's office. "When you wait 20 or 30 years and want benefits, it can be difficult tracking down records."
But some soldiers say long waits for care and other hassles of dealing with the federal VA system just aren't worth it.
Army Sgt. Keith Reine of Denver's 220th Military Police Company injured his back while serving in Iraq and is eligible for lifelong VA care. He said he's chosen coverage under his wife's private insurance instead.
"I don't think the quality of care provided by the military is comparable," Reine said.
Veterans' advocates said congressional action is needed to fix gaps in the benefits system for Guard and Reserve troops.
One problem is a huge backlog of claims at a time when the VA has had to cut claims processors, critics said.
Another is lack of access for veterans groups and VA counselors who want to help soldiers, said Stephen Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center.
"We can't get the (military) commanders to let us on the base to give the soldiers information," he said.
Robinson said he's working with Congress to establish electronic medical records that track soldiers throughout their service and then can be transferred to VA medical centers.
VA officials are already working with the Department of Defense to streamline the post- deployment process and to ensure all soldiers know they have the opportunity to apply for VA benefits, said Jim Benson, spokesman with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.
The agency has increased the number of benefits counselors on military bases, where Guard, Reserve and regular soldiers return from combat duty, and is piloting a one-exam system that covers both a soldier's discharge physical and VA entrance exam, he said.
"We're concerned about it too," Benson said.
Staff writer Nancy Lofholm can be reached at 970-256-1957 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Staff writer Marsha Austin can be reached at 303-820-1242 or email@example.com