Thursday, March 28, 2013

I Am Not Disabled

I struck up a conversation with a woman in line at Starbucks yesterday. It seemed natural since we were both wearing CAM walkers (a hard plastic brace) on our left feet. She is still using crutches and we commiserated over our injuries; mine received going ice skating, hers received overseas. As we chatted I mentioned that I was former military and then she wanted to know if I had applied for VA benefits. I told her I had not and she then asked me to sit down with her. I wasn’t particularly interested in the conversation but it felt like she had something she needed to say so I took a couple minutes. She explained to me that I needed to apply for VA benefits and that the DAV (Disabled American Veterans) could help me look through my medical records and make a claim for VA disability. She suggested looking at the VA’s online resources for their tables of compensable conditions, and she suggested claiming everything that could apply. It would be easy, she said to get to 30% which is considered the disabled threshold by most states. I just needed to make sure I had at least 3 doctor visits addressing each condition. She coached me a little on the VA medical exam; to be sure not to say “I’m doing great” and instead to talk about how different conditions were impacting my life. She pointed out that if I complained to a dentist I could claim TMJ, which she thinks everyone has, and that it would be worth 20%. She talked at length about the financial benefits I could get, including educational benefits from vocational rehabilitation.

I listened to her, nodded and smiled, and when she was done I thanked her for her time and walked away. She seemed to enjoy the interaction and feel good about helping me, and that is what I was trying to accomplish. I did know much of what she told me. I have worked in military health for a long time and I’ve seen plenty of people come in to get health conditions documented as they get close to retirement. They are preparing for the VA exam and medical record review and they want everything possible down on their record before they leave active duty service.

I won’t be applying to the VA for any benefits. Yes, I could possibly be leaving money on the table, although I truly don’t believe I am. Because here’s the thing. I’m not disabled. I see myself as a very able person. I can do my job and earn a living. I can care for my family and enjoy my life. I don’t have any service acquired chronic medical problems. Even a severe ankle fracture (acquired outside military service, during a leisure activity gone bad) hasn’t slowed me down much. So I don’t think that’s my money to take. I haven’t earned it, don’t need it, and don’t deserve it. I don’t have a problem with people who are disabled applying for benefits. After chatting with my new acquaintance for a few minutes I know she will need and deserve her VA disability. Her injuries were severe and she is still having a lot of problems. But I don’t think it’s right for someone who is able and capable to game the system, which is what I’d be doing if I applied. I’d rather leave the money for someone who genuinely needs it.

I think what bothers me most is the attitude she displayed. She clearly thought it was right and acceptable for me to ask for as much as I could get, regardless of real need. That’s not the point of a disability system, but I think this attitude is fairly prevalent in our culture, in and out of military settings. Look out for number one first, take as much as you can get, and who cares about what’s right or about anyone else seems to be the unspoken motto of many people’s lives. Not that most people would admit to it. Instead they would spend a great deal of time defending and justifying their actions and playing up their symptoms. All of the noise and rationalization makes me suspect that people do realize their attitude isn’t right. Again, I’m not talking about people who have genuine injuries. You have a traumatic brain injury, a case of post traumatic stress disorder, a physical injury from the war? You entered the military a healthy young person and now you can’t work because of injuries or illnesses acquired in the service of your country? Yes, you deserve compensation and I want you to have it. That’s part of why I won’t take it for headaches and mild low back pain that are nothing but inconveniences. Maybe it’s just pride talking, but I’m not disabled.