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How one vet's persistence paid off

Paul Weaver wanted answers from the VA about his disability benefits. In the end, the Iraq war vet helped many others.

By Jill CarrollStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 23, 2008

Tenacious Iraq vet: Paul Weaver at his uncle's house in Spring City, Pa. His efforts helped spark action in Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general's office.

SABINA LOUISE PIERCE/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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It was an average-looking letter that landed in Paul Weaver's mailbox. But bearing news that his veteran's disability benefits had been stopped, it felt more like a ton of crashing bricks.

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He felt shock, then resignation.

He thought "I can't do this anymore. I have to move on."

Mr. Weaver had sought treatment at US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities a few years earlier for what had been diagnosed as a serious illness as well as for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his Marine Corps deployment to Iraq in 2003, where he was a machine-gunner with the original invasion force.

Now it was July 2007, and he wanted to leave the battle behind him – even if it meant giving up thousands of dollars a month in disability benefits. But his father, a retired senior chief petty officer with the Navy, wouldn't hear of it.

"You can't just have a civilian tell you 'no,' " Paul Weaver Sr. told his son. "They owe you a day in court."

He decided to fight – and unwittingly started a chain of events that would lead to improvements in the local San Diego VA system, benefiting thousands of others. They are the kinds of improvements called for by Congress, veterans groups, and the public as the VA system comes under increased scrutiny with the arrival of a new generation of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Rep. Bob Filner (D) of California, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, says years of underfunding and poor leadership are to blame for the system's shortcomings, particularly a shortage of mental-health services for the new veterans.

"It's a long history of not being funded properly," says Representative Filner. "Morale goes down in a place when you get asked to do more and more with less and less."

Even with a 40 percent increase in VA funding over the past two fiscal years, says Filner, spread throughout the VA's vast bureaucracy, the money "takes a while to filter down." Some 250,000 VA employees are spread among about 1,500 facilities from medical centers to community clinics to nursing homes. In the last year, the VA started a suicide hot line, made plans to hire suicide prevention coordinators for each medical center, and convened panels of mental-health experts to advise the department on improving suicide prevention.

Veterans' mental health and suicides have become critical issues. One reason: More survive war thanks to better armor and battlefield treatment, but are also more likely to be left with serious mental injuries, according to experts who have studied US casualty causes and rates in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The VA came under particularly harsh criticism earlier this year when an e-mail surfaced showing that VA officials discussed keeping secret the figure of about 1,000 attempted suicides per month among veterans in VA facilities. The secretary of the VA later said the figure was unreliable, but he got a thorough tongue-lashing from Congress and veterans groups nevertheless.

"To me, we've committed murder," says Filner of reports of veterans who commit suicide while waiting for an appointment to see a VA mental-health specialist.

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