Transcript: Interview: Serving Veterans with Disabilities

Boris Klaric: Good morning, everybody. Thanks for joining us for another episode of the Access Aisle. As always, my name is Boris Klaric, and joining with me today is US Army Staff Sergeant Andrew Lanman. How are you doing today, buddy?

Andrew Lanman: Good.

BK: Well, thanks for joining us today. We are observing Veterans Day, and all the work that veterans have done not just for our country but especially in the realm of disability rights and disability advocacy. Can you tell me a little bit about what it is that you do, and the kind of things that you experienced working with the veterans with disabilities?

AL: I originally went into the Army Reserve as an MP. I was 18. I wanted to do law enforcement, at least I thought I did. That’s a hard job. I joined at 18 in 2006, 2005, somewhere in there.

BK: Right out of high school.

AL: Pretty much right out of high school, yeah. I took a year off. I was adamant I did not wanna join the military, but I was told that I can either join the military. If I wanted to go to college, I’d have to figure out how to pay for it, and so I joined the military. That was the only way I was gonna pay for school. I joined the military 2006, 18 years old, ’cause it was the only way I could be in law enforcement and not be 21, ’cause you have to be 21 to do civilian law enforcement ’cause of the whole firearms laws. After seven years, I decided I didn’t wanna do it anymore, and I switched over to psychological operations which is like, in my opinion, the best MOS the Army has. We work a lot with civilian populations in other countries and things like that. We do a lot of… It’s marketing and advertising, and it’s trying to get them to stop doing or to do an action that’s beneficial to them.

BK: Got you.

AL: Graduated from Limestone College in 2015, with my Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work. And then I went to University of South Carolina, graduated with a Master’s Degree in Social Work. And it took me a little while. I applied here, there, and everywhere. And I knew ultimately I wanted to work at the VA, and I never imagined that I’d get it right out of the gate. Actually today is my two-year anniversary there.

BK: Nice. Congratulations.

AL: Mostly what my work deals with is the disability claims that they put in. It’s not so much like a disability paycheck, when you think about it in terms of that goes, like a Social Security Disability or something like that. It’s actually… And this was something that I learned when I first started working there, is it’s more… It’s compensation. If you think about it, you have 100% healthy body or 100% able body, when you get that disability rating from the VA, let’s say you’re 30%, 40%, whatever you are, that’s 40% of time that you would otherwise have to, if you were able-bodied, give to an employer, that 40% of time, that compensation that those benefits are supposed to go towards making up for that pay gap. That would be time that you would normally be at work, you’re spending at doctor’s appointments and things like that.

BK: Okay. So, at that point, factoring the time that’s spent on the disability, and mitigating symptoms and factors related to that transition?

AL: Right, yeah.

BK: Okay. What have you noticed about the types of disabilities and the types of claims that you’re seeing that are popular or prevalent?

AL: A lot of it is gonna be your musculoskeletal stuff, like your bad backs, bad knees, bad joints, things like that, and some mental health issues. PTSD is a big one. We’ve all heard that 22 A Day thing, where we’re trying to prevent veteran suicides, and it seems like every other… Just about every other week, you’re hearing about another veteran who’s committed suicide. That’s one of the big issues right now, is definitely the mental health. We’ve gone from not even actually having a diagnosis. They called it soldier’s heart in the Civil War, and then moved forward to Vietnam era, and now you have shell shock. And so now I see a lot of older veterans coming in, and claiming mental health issues and PTSD for some Vietnam veterans first time ever. And that war ended in the ’70s.

BK: What do you think some of the barriers were preventing them from seeking that care out sooner?

AL: I think a lot of it veterans are hard-headed or stubborn. A lot of it is we don’t wanna ask for help, because we don’t necessarily see that there’s anything wrong with us. We don’t want people to see us as broken or anything like that. And so a lot of that is invisible. Personally, I have TBI from getting blown up when I was in Afghanistan, and I also deal with PTSD, and I have some musculoskeletal issues, too. It’s rough on the body. And so that’s one of the big things is, when you’re young, you feel like you’re invincible, and then you start to get older and you’re like, “Oh, man, I guess I got messed up a lot worse than I thought I did.” And so we see a lot of the older veterans coming in now for the first time. Vietnam, those veterans, they really got the short end of the stick when it came to that kind of stuff. And so we’ve seen a lot of things come out of just those veterans, like diabetes from Agent Orange exposure, which is the herbicide agent that they were using to defoliate the force over in Vietnam. A lot of what we call presumptive things, like the musculoskeletal issues, and some other stuff like respiratory issues out of the Gulf War, first and second Gulf War in Southwest Asia. And there’s a lot of things that go into that that a lot of people don’t really know about. There’s a lot of things that you get to… Old Uncle Sam stays with you once you get out of service. And you don’t really realize it, and some of it takes several years to manifest. And so you don’t really realize how bad it is. And then on top of that, it’s the not wanting to ask for help thing ’cause you’re a soldier, you’re strong. You don’t wanna show weakness. That’s a lot of it, I think, is wanting to avoid that image of weakness, which now, knowing and being older, it’s definitely not weakness if you need help. It’s something you should do, ask for help.

BK: Yeah, absolutely. What type of resources do you feel like you want your fellow veterans to know about?

AL: The education money that’s there for disabled veterans. We have VR&E, which is Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment, not education, which a lot of people think it is education. But it’s counseling services that you have available to you as a veteran to help you get that vocational training and rehabilitation and employment ideally, ’cause that is something a lot of people don’t understand. Yeah, you can be 100% disabled through the VA, but you can still work. And that’s one of the things that the VA does try to do, is to help veterans find employment. And there’s a lot of employers out there that are willing to hire veterans just because they’re veterans.

BK: Absolutely.

AL: I’m a service-connected veteran, too, and I work at the VA and that’s… The biggest joy I get out of it is helping other fellow veterans. I might not ever see them face-to-face, one-on-one, but seeing what they’re going through and some of the issues that they’re dealing with disability-wise, and knowing that I was a part of being able to help them in some way, is a huge benefit for me.

BK: That term you used, “service-connected vet,” what does that mean?

AL: Service-connected entails… There’s a lot of laws and regulations that govern it. And basically what… The layman’s definition would be anything that you have, if you have a disability, like if you hurt yourself in service and now you’re no longer serving, you have service-connected disability. And so that’s basically where the VA finds that you incur this injury or you did something in service to cause this disability, and it’s considered service-connected, so it was caused by service.

BK: How common is that amongst, you feel like, the current generation of active duty?

AL: Pretty common.

BK: Pretty common?

AL: Pretty common. Like I was saying earlier, a lot of people don’t even really realize that it’s considered a disability. I mean, it is, especially the invisible wounds, like the mental health stuff.

BK: Yeah.

AL: Yeah. It’s been a lot of veterans pushing for that, because when you think of disabilities, and it’s unfortunate, you think of your deserving populations and those who, although this isn’t their fault… Well it’s not really anybody’s fault. You have veterans, and it’s a good face to put on something. They didn’t even have… Veterans didn’t even have disability rights until not long after World War I.

BK: Yeah. World War I is how we got service animals. It was because of the effect of mustard gas and so many people coming back blind, that they had to… Those hospitals had to find a way to, “How are we going to accommodate now these thousands and thousands of returning troops that have these needs,” and they were directly as a result of their service.

AL: Right. And the big thing is when they marched on Washington after World War I and they were trying to get these benefits, they were actually hosed off the street. A lot of people don’t realize that. They were veterans, US service member, former service members were marching on Washington to get some kind of compensation for being sent to this war and coming back catastrophically injured, missing limbs and eyesight. We don’t see a whole lot of mustard gas and lose sight claims anymore, ’cause that stuff is not really supposed to be used on the battlefield. But a lot of the stuff that came out of that, we’re still seeing today. Parking spaces for physically handicapped individuals, that came out of that. But they were actually hosed off the streets. They had their little camp outside of the White House, and they came out and this riot police just hosed veterans off the streets, and then somebody was like, “That’s not right.” That’s where we got a lot of our initial disability laws and stuff from.

BK: From your perspective, what’s missing? Because we know laws are not all-encompassing, we can’t fix every single issue that’s going on with legislation, as much as we try to. What are the gaps currently that are hurting our veterans?

AL: I just think that it’s a bureaucratic process, so there’s a lot of red tape that goes into it. I can look at a claim for a back injury on one veteran and a claim for a back injury on another veteran, and there’s a checklist of laws and regulations that go into what is and what is not service-connected. And one of the biggest issues I see is… And they’ve done a lot for it, is having to prove that this is something that was caused by service. And so now we have a lot of these presumptive things that I was talking about earlier, where we know that if you were in the military based on your MOS, or your Military Occupation Specialty, what your job was in the military, you’re more likely to be exposed to certain things and others. For example, an infantry person is probably more likely to have really bad knees, ankles, and back from having to carry all that heavy stuff around, or bad hearing or tinnitus, the ringing in the ears, a lot of that stuff.

BK: And so it’s gotten a lot easier for that, but it’s still hard. You can’t… The old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” So, I think, if there was more awareness on what is actually available to veterans through the VA, for example, if you have loss of use of both feet, there is actually a grant that you can get to help you get money for specially adaptive housing or specially adaptive automobile equipment.

BK: And this is for veterans specifically?

AL: Mm-hmm, for veterans specifically. You have to meet certain criteria. There’s a lot of laws and regulations that go into it, but once you get that, it’s a grant. And I know that if you have prosthetics, you can get a clothing allowance, too, which is recurring every year. You get a certain amount because you might have to have garments altered to accommodate your prosthetic.

BK: Okay. I know earlier we talked about one of the things that keeps veterans from seeking care is that mental barrier of, “This isn’t a problem,” that showing weakness. Do you think that that’s a culturally inherent thing in the military and that that’s possible to change, or is that the cost of doing business?

AL: A little bit of both, honestly. I’ve been in for about 13 years now, so I’ve seen a huge change in that, because we went from peacetime Army in between wars in the ’80s to now, the first Gulf War in the ’90s, flash forward a couple of years, we’ve been at war in Afghanistan, in Iraq now since 2001 timeframe. So, the keeping it quiet and sucking it up and driving on thing has really gotten a lot better. Plus there’s a bigger emphasis on the hazing thing, that’s been really cracked down. The joke around, it’s a “kinder, gentler Army.” In reality, we still have the training, we still have the expectations, but I think now it’s getting more… This is why, in the past, there have been such worse injuries and ongoing issues, and veterans seeking help for the first time. They might have got out 10, 15 years ago, 20 years ago, because of that culture from the past. And now the culture has shifted with more of an emphasis on seeking that help.

BK: Do you think it’s easier now to find those services? Do you think they’re more available than they were in previous decades?

AL: I think so, yes, ’cause we’ve been at war for so long now, so I think that there are a lot of those organizations out there, like Wounded Warrior Project, Folds of Honor, which help scholarships for fallen veterans’ families’ independence. There’s a lot more of those services out there now than there was in the past, and that’s also helped for veterans to be more active and actively seeking those benefits.

BK: What is something that… So you would want service providers to know as they’re trying to reach this community and get people into care, what are some things that we need to keep in mind in being accommodating for and including veterans?

AL: Most of us are stubborn, speaking from personal experience. I don’t really like to go to the doctor, but when I do go, it’s generally because something’s really not right. And so I think one of the things to be most aware of as a service provider or a medical service provider for a veteran is that if… They’re coming to you more likely because they really actually realize that there’s an issue. And they’re hard-headed. [chuckle] We do, it’s AMA, against medical advice all the time. I just had back surgery for my back not too long ago, and I had to constantly remind myself I can’t do that yet, I gotta let myself heal. That’s probably one of the biggest things, is we’re stubborn. And the whole seeking help in the first place is against what is culturally acceptable, what’s socially acceptable within the military culture.

BK: We already know that coming from active duty back into civilian life, that’s a transition. And then adding disability to that transition, what are some unique things that veterans with disabilities are facing when they’re trying to adjust back to life after the military?

AL: Slowing down. I think that was the biggest thing. I have a couple of deployments. I’ve been in the Reserve for 13 years. My only active duty time really is deployment. And it’s such a huge change of pace coming back from that side and having to turn that switch off. And now you’re back in civilized society, and you have to slow down and you have to realize that not everybody has a lot of the same training and a lot of the same stuff that you saw and went through. And that was one of the biggest transitions. I hear a loud noise, and I’m looking around for what caused it, where it came from, and nobody else is freaking out, and that causes my anxiety to go even higher. It’s like, “What’s wrong with you? What are you… “

BK: You feel like that extra spotlight is on you now because, “What are you looking for?”

AL: Yeah, ’cause now I’m freaking out and I’m looking around trying to figure out what’s going on. And nobody else is doing anything, and I’m getting upset that they’re not doing anything. And now I look like the crazy veteran on the…

BK: And it spirals from there.

AL: Yeah. That was one of the biggest transitions, is just slowing down, taking a breath and not… You know.

BK: Yeah. Last month was National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and we really celebrate the efforts to get people with disabilities back into the workforce, back to working. What is something that you would want an employer that maybe hasn’t thought about a veteran with a disability for a position, or hasn’t really thought about what it would take to court that population back to work? What’s something that you would want that employer to know?

AL: Just be patient. Hard workers. Most people I’ve met in the military that are veterans are hard workers, and they’re willing to dedicate themselves to accomplish the task. That’s what we’re… I hate to use the word “indoctrinated” into, but that’s basically what it is. We have our Warrior Ethos and it’s, “I’ll never quit. I’ll never leave a fallen comrade.” Then there’s a couple of others. The commitment to the mission is there, they might just get frustrated with their co-workers sometimes. It happens.

BK: Yeah. But they’re really process-oriented.

AL: Yes, exactly, definitely process-oriented. They wanna know what the end goal is and anything that they can do to help get there.

BK: That’s something that any business model can benefit from somebody that’s ready to just pick up the process and…

BK: Are there services for vets in that same breath that can help them find jobs when they get out?

AL: Yes, the VR&E that I was talking about earlier.

BK: So, they’ll work with active duty that already have their end day and their paperwork?

AL: Right, yeah. They’ll start getting you worked on, getting enrolled in school, if that’s what you wanna do. They’ll start working on helping you find employment, if that’s what you wanna do.

BK: And what are the… Are we seeing… Have these programs been around long enough for us to see the outcomes and the benefits for those veterans that are using them?

AL: They’ve been around for a while. I can’t really speak to the outcomes and the measures of effectiveness. The laws change all the time. I guess you were asking me earlier if I could think of one thing that I wanted the veterans to be aware of. It’s that you don’t see it immediately, but your voices are heard. The committees and people that they have up in DC, they hear you. We recently just re-did the appeals process, and I think it’s a lot better than it used to be. They used to have veterans waiting three to five years for an appeal to be heard. Now, they can still go that route, if they want, but now they have other options, so it’s a lot quicker turnaround. Voices are being heard. The laws are changing constantly. It has gotten so much easier as the time goes on, especially now with everything being digital. It’s all computer. There’s no paper claims folders anymore. Yeah, it’s come a long way. It’s come a long way, and I love it. Laws changing all the time. I mean, it’s stressful because you learn one way, and then you’re told… Every quarter, every time the regime change happens up in Washington, and they want this to be done versus this not to be done, and it’s getting better and better and better. Voices are heard, laws are changing all the time. That’s probably one of most stressful things about the job, but that’s also one of the best things about the job.

BK: ‘Cause you get to see that change happen in real time.

AL: Yeah, exactly. I get to see that change happen in real time, and knowing where we’ve come to where we are now.

BK: Awesome. Well, that was perfect.

BK: This has been an excellent talk. Thank you, Andrew, so much for joining me here today. This is where you say, “Thank you for having… “

 AL: Oh, thanks for having me.

[chuckle]

BK: Awesome. [laughter] Awesome. Great.

AL: I have no social etiquette.

[laughter]

BK: Yeah. There’s not… For podcasts, there’s really not.