Federal government shutdown threatens many veteran benefits

Federal government shutdown threatens many veteran benefits

October 12th, 2013 by Todd South in Local Regional News

Alan Syler, left, talks with Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger at First Tennessee Pavilion during the Rally Point to connect veterans with services in their community.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

Area VA offices:

Could be affected

Nashville Regional Office (benefits claims processing)

110 9th Ave. South, Nashville

(800) 827-1000

Atlanta Regional Loan Center

1700 Clairmont Road, Decatur, Ga.

(888) 768-2132

Likely not affected

Chattanooga Vet Center (mental health counseling)

951 Eastgate Loop Road, Chattanooga

(423) 855-6570

VA Chattanooga Community Based Outpatient Clinic

150 Debra Road Suite 5200, Building 6200, Chattanooga

(423) 893-6500

Alvin C. York Campus, Tennessee Valley Healthcare System

3400 Lebanon Pike, Murfreesboro, TN

(615) 867-6000

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Even with signs of movement in Washington among the forces driving the federal government shutdown, millions of military veterans worry about the pension, disability and education benefits they depend on.

If the shutdown continues to the end of October, they might not see a check next month.

Alan Siler is a Navy submarine veteran who collects disability from his service.

The payments make up a third of the Vietnam-era veteran's income.

"I don't know if that check will be in my savings account," Siler said at a veterans services outreach program held this week at the Tennessee Pavilion.

Across the hangar a much younger veteran worried about what the shutdown would do to his education benefits.

Daniel Wagner, a 26-year-old Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan, is going to school at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on the GI Bill.

The federal government pays tuition to schools a semester at a time. So his school money is safe, at least until the end of this term.

But Wagner also receives a cost-of-living stipend. That's in jeopardy.

"If they didn't pay, I wouldn't get my food," he said. Wagner also is co-chairman of the UTC Student Veteran Organization. He said other veterans on campus have been asking what happens if the Veterans Administration stops paying.

The VA has posted a "Field Guide to Government Shutdown" on its website.

That's what officials referenced when the Times Free Press called and emailed for comment on the effects of the federal shutdown.

"VA has funds available to ensure claims processing and payments in the compensation, pension, education and vocational rehabilitation programs will continue through late October," the website states. "However, in the event of a prolonged shutdown, claims processing and payments in these programs will be suspended when funds are exhausted."

Jim Schul, a 68-year-old retired Army veteran who collects a pension that makes up half his income, said he's been following the shutdown closely.

"If it ran much longer it could become an issue for every veteran," Schul said. "You're going to start hearing from every age and every branch."

Department of Defense death benefits for military families were briefly halted but a quickly-convened House and Senate vote passed a bill Thursday afternoon to ensure payment and President Barack Obama signed it the same day.

Garry Augustine, executive director of the nonprofit Disabled American Veterans group, said this week that the organization is learning hour-by-hour the ramifications of the shutdown for veterans.

"We get calls all of the time," he said. "Every day our officers are being besieged."

Health-related benefits such as hospital stays, medicine and mental health counseling will continue unabated because they are under a two-year appropriation not affected by the shutdown.

Even before the shutdown, Augustine said, there's been a push to fund the rest of the Veterans Administration, especially benefits, in the same way.

"Then [future benefits] won't be affected by the same political issues," he said.

As the shutdown continues, Augustine advised veterans to contact DAV and other service organizations such as the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars for guidance.

DAV officers will be at regional VA centers to help process claims related to veteran disabilities so that they can be submitted when the shutdown ends.

Not only will those receiving disability benefits be affected, veterans filing new claims will see their requests frozen as the Veterans Benefits Administration and the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims stop operating.

Local attorney Robin Flores represents veterans who file claims and their appeals.

"You've got veterans languishing even more," Flores said of what he said is an already slow and cumbersome claims system.

Flores pointed to a claim he filed two years ago for which he has yet to receive a response from the VBA other than it was received.

"A lot of these vets don't have medical insurance," Flores said. "You'll have a backlog of claims you file and they just sit."

One bright spot emerged for a Signal Mountain veteran of World War II.

Charles Cloud, 89, parachuted into German-held territory shortly after D-Day only to be tangled in a tree and shot at by a German machine gunner.

He and his fellow paratroopers managed to get down and around to the machine gun nest to toss in a hand grenade.

He's never seen the memorials in Washington, D.C., built to honor him and his fellow veterans.

"We were concerned about [the shutdown] as a possibility, but it didn't get that far down the ladder to cancel a trip for World War II veterans," Cloud said in a phone interview Wednesday.

But today he'll board an Honor Flight in Nashville along with about 30 other World War II and Korean War veterans to tour the capital. The Honor Flight program is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to fund flight and tours of war memorials for military veterans.

Last week, U.S. National Parks officials at first barred entrance to the World War II Memorial but soon relented.

To avoid any problems, Honor Flight coordinator Claude Morse, of Coffee County, has received assurances from members of Congress from his district that the veterans will have access to the major monuments on their tour.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.