More vets may get treatment for PTSD
Women in particular could benefit from change to rules
Like tens of thousands of her fellow soldiers, Serena Hayden, 28, filed a claim for service-related post-traumatic stress disorder when she left the Army in 2008 and moved to Pflugerville. As a military public affairs officer in Iraq, she traveled in convoys susceptible to roadside bombs and viewed the war’s horror in hospitals and mortuaries. In one of the attacks that marked her deployment during the bloody 2007 surge, a mortar fell about 30 feet from the trailer she called home.
During her 14-month deployment, she arranged for a public affairs soldier to ride in a convoy. The soldier was killed when the convoy was attacked.
“I sat curled up next to his body bag, crying and crying because of the guilt I felt,” she said. “I still to this day feel responsible. I don’t know when it’s ever going to end or get better.”
Because she didn’t serve in a direct combat role, Hayden had to prove to Department of Veterans Affairs officials that her PTSD stemmed from incidents during her deployment. A VA official rejected her PTSD claim.
But Hayden and thousands of service members might find some relief with a regulation that went into effect Tuesday that changes how
the VA treats claims for PTSD. The new regulation, hailed as a sea change by some veterans organizations, will make it easier for the more than 2 million service members who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan to get benefits for PTSD, which affects an estimated 20 to 30 percent of returning troops.
Until Tuesday, service members had to prove that their PTSD was connected to a service-related “stressor” to receive disability payments for PTSD. For combat troops, the step was largely a formality; but for the thousands of troops who did not serve in direct combat roles — truck drivers, mechanics, public affairs officers and others in support roles — the requirement meant tracking down incident reports, hard-to-find documents and statements from witnesses.
The old rules were particu- larly troublesome for the more than 250,000 women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and who are barred from serving in combat roles.
Women’s veterans groups complained that VA claims officials, unaware of the nature of combat in the current conflicts, unfairly denied women’s PTSD claims because of their gender.
Though the VA would not release statistics showing how many female veterans have had PTSD claims denied, a 2003 study of more than 3,300 veterans published in the journal Medical Care showed that women were denied at a higher rate than men: 52 percent of women had their PTSD deemed to be service-connected, compared with 71 percent of male veterans.
Paul Sullivan, head of the Austin-based Veterans for Common Sense, which petitioned for the rule change nearly two years ago, said the change will help the thousands of troops who didn’t serve in traditional combat roles even as it frees up heavily taxed VA staffers who could concentrate on processing claims rather than chasing down service records.
He said that the change will allow more veterans to get treatment for PTSD more quickly, cutting down on costs from PTSD-related problems, such as substance abuse, homelessness and unemployment.
“Over the long term, there will be a net savings to America,” he said. “There will be fewer long-term social problems. This is a substantial victory.”
Hayden said the change in the rules is overdue. In Iraq, she said, “you’re vulnerable no matter whether you’re on the base or not. There’s no safe place whatsoever … Just because we’re not allowed in combat roles doesn’t mean that over there we’re not.”
Jennifer Schingle, an associate counsel with the VA Board of Appeals, said too many female veterans have been caught in bureaucratic rabbit holes as they try to prove a service-related stressor.
“In a roadside explosion, whether or not they were holding a gun ready to fight or passing by, they will still be affected, and they are entitled to the same benefits,” she said. “Our female veterans and troops are serving in a unique way, and the law should respect them.”
The new regulations will apply to veterans who have yet to apply for benefits, currently have a claim or are in the appeals process, an official with the VA said. Veterans of previous conflicts who have been denied a PTSD claim can re-file under the new rules, but they would not get benefits retroactive to their original filing date if they are approved.
Women’s veterans organizations generally applauded Tuesday’s rule change, which the VA had been finalizing for about a year, but said it didn’t address what they say is an even stronger predictor of PTSD among female troops: sexual trauma.
Rachel Natelson, legal adviser for the Service Women’s Action Network, said the new regulation will still require veterans who have suffered sexual assault outside the war zone to prove that their assault happened — and she said it is not clear whether the regulation will help service members who suffer sexual assault in the war zone.
Sexual assault “victims in particular wouldn’t be in a position to benefit from the new” regulation, Natelson said. Military sexual trauma “claimants really are not being given the benefit of the doubt.”
Some critics have suggested that loosening the rules on PTSD benefits will result in increased fraud by veterans seeking to get money for phony claims.
But Sullivan said it’s highly unlikely that veterans would abuse the relaxed rules, which still require veterans to be diagnosed with PTSD and to have served in a war zone.
Until Tuesday, veterans such as Hayden faced years of frustrating denials and appeals.
Kristine Turley found herself in a five-year fight for her PTSD benefits when she returned from a 2004 Iraq tour. Turley, serving with the Washington National Guard, faced daily mortar attacks and dangerous convoy missions. She tore ligaments in her leg while running during a mortar attack on her base.
“When I came back and submitted my claim, it was like, ‘Why do you think you have PTSD?’” Turley said. “I’m like, ‘I am not making this thing up.’ If the whole country is considered a war zone, why isn’t that significant enough? There is no safe zone in Iraq.”
Soon after, her claim was denied. “I felt like nobody had my back,” Turley said. “I’m dealing with all this stuff and doing everything right, but what is it they want? What do I have to do to prove to them?”
Turley went directly to the office of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who supported overhauling the VA’s rules on PTSD. With help from the senator’s office, Turley’s PTSD claim was approved in 2009.
Hayden said she has been approved for disability compensation for depression and anxiety, but, “I know I have symptoms outside depression and anxiety — anger being a huge one,” she said. “I have yelled at people, and it’s just not me, not who I was.”
Hayden said she also suffers from survivor’s guilt, which can be a symptom of PTSD. Hayden, now a project manager with an Austin construction company and the communications officer for the Austin-based female veterans group Grace After Fire, is waiting to hear about her request for an appeals hearing with the VA.
“I don’t want extra money. I just want (the VA) to recognize it,” Hayden said.
Serena Hayden, who served in Iraq and saw some of the war’s horrors firsthand, was denied benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder because she didn’t serve in direct combat.
New rules will make it easier for veterans such as Serena Hayden, who served in Iraq, to get treatment for PTSD. ‘I don’t want extra money. I just want (the VA) to recognize it,’ she said.