Vets suffering from PTSD deserve benefit of the doubt

Veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) just had a huge burden lifted from their shoulders. On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced veterans who served in a war zone and are diagnosed with PTSD are now presumed to have a service connected disability. This entitles them to disability compensation and access to the healthcare they deserve. It is a tremendous victory for brave men and women who risked their lives fighting for our country, only to return home bearing the invisible scars of war and facing another battle: to prove that their mental or emotional distress was caused by their service.

All too often we focus our attention on funding the tools of war, not the physical or mental health of those who use them. In February 2009, I introduced the COMBAT PTSD Act, which focused on creating a presumption of service connected disability for veterans diagnosed with PTSD. I discussed the issue with President Barack Obama during a meeting at the White House and in several meetings with VA Secretary Shinseki. Last August, the VA announced a draft rule change to accomplish the same goal.

The final rule moves the VA closer to being the veteran’s advocate, not the veteran’s adversary. Under previous law, a veteran had to prove the circumstances surrounding their traumatic experience.  This process was difficult, time consuming and unfair to veterans, especially women and older veterans. Requiring a veteran to document their “stressor” can be almost impossible, especially finding evidence of a traumatic incident 40 years after the fact. The VA often flatly denied a claim because of spotty documentation or the inability to track down old buddies who can confirm a shared experience.

Our recent veterans were also hurt by the VA’s old rule. There are many jobs in the modern military that are designated “non-combat,” like driving a supply truck or being a language specialist. Also, by definition women are barred from serving in combat. However in today’s conflicts, we know that there are no front lines. Anyone serving in Iraq and Afghanistan can be exposed to enemy gunfire, mortars or IEDs, regardless of designation. It is simply illogical to deny benefits to these veterans because of an arbitrary classification.

PTSD claims are some of the most complicated and time consuming for the VA to process. The rule change will dramatically simplify this process and potentially reduce the unacceptable backlog of disability claims, which now exceeds 1.1 million. On average, it takes the VA more than 160 days to decide a claim and up to three years to complete an appeal. The new rule will accelerate PTSD claims decisions, freeing up VA employees to help other veterans.

Thousands of veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan may now be eligible for benefits and healthcare, even if their claim was previously denied. No longer will soldiers who experienced shocking and inhuman events on the battlefield have to “prove it” to a skeptical caseworker.

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As Chairman of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, it is my responsibility to make sure the VA implements this new rule quickly, effectively and fairly. I am optimistic, given the quick action of President Obama and Secretary Shinseki, himself a double Purple Heart recipient.

I am tremendously humbled and grateful for the service and sacrifice of the men and women who wear the uniforms of the United States Armed Forces. Thanks are also due to the many Veterans Service Organizations, individual veterans and their families, whose testimony helped shape the bill, which was unanimously reported out of the Subcommittee and full VA Committee, and laid out the rationale for this rule change. There is much more to be done, but let us move forward to protect those who protect us: our veterans.

Rep. Hall is the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.