Guest Column | Am I supposed to be poor?
Why is it so difficult to receive help after returning home from the military with a life-altering injury?
August 10, 2013, 2:52 pm·
I torment myself every day, asking: am I worthy enough for help? Are U.S. social policies constructed to help those that are struggling, or drive applicants and recipients of social assistance programs to the brink? I have utilized food stamps. I currently depend on Medicaid insurance for my family and I have received energy assistance. So, who are these programs for? During the application and reapplication process for each, I was treated as unsavory and inhumane for asking. Conservative pundits would categorize me as a “freeloader,” a product of my own irresponsibility. Am I now by default part of what presidential candidate Mitt Romney once referred to as the “47% who are dependent on the government, who believe that they are victims?” Am I one who presumes the government has a responsibility to care for me?
I am currently a graduate student at Penn. In 1995, at the age of 20, I sustained a life-altering back injury while serving in the United States military. For a year following my initial injury, I was too macho to let anyone know about the excruciating pain. When I was honorably discharged from service because of my injury, I was told that I was not eligible for any benefits. As time passed, hiding my disability proved to be a house of cards that not even I could conceal or manage. I reached a pivotal point in 2001 when (at the suggestion of an army recruiter) I finally asked the VA for help. I was terribly ashamed, yet I had this deep inner-belief that I had been purposefully misled. It turned out that I was right.
Uncovering this shocking truth was only the beginning for me. As I sit here just a few blocks from Penn’s campus, I await a decision from the VA; one that appropriately compensates me for the extremely disabling condition I am now forced to live with. I have been unable to hold a steady job since 2006 because of the limitations the condition has placed on me. Right now I receive $255 per month from the VA as compensation for my back injury. To me, this is a cruel joke.
But I am not the only one. In March of this year, Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick (representing the 8th Congressional District of Pennsylvania in the House of Representatives) wrote to the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki. In this correspondence, Mike noted that in 2012 alone, 19,500 veterans died while waiting for their claims to be processed. This was recently reported by the Center for Investigative Reporting who, according to their website, “has relentlessly pursued and revealed injustices that otherwise would remain hidden from the public eye.” According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, of the 115,394 claims processed last year by the Philadelphia office, more than half remained open after 125 days.
The fate of my compensation claim is in the hands of a Board of Veterans Appeals judge in Washington, D.C. He interviewed me over live video feed in June of 2012, with my wife and attorney at my side. He has been deliberating for over 400 days on whether or not to approve my claim. How is it that the Department of Veterans Affairs Vocational Rehabilitation program acknowledged, in 2011, that I had a serious physical employment handicap, yet the Board of Veterans Appeals cannot arrive at that same nexus?
Now here is the irony in all of this. Until 2006, I was employed full time. I dedicated my entire professional career to advocating for those who needed a voice. Specifically, for individuals with disabilities. I also worked with individuals receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to help navigate a difficult system that even the most educated struggle to comprehend fully. I worked on behalf of hundreds of people to make sure they were taken care of to the absolute best of my ability. So I ask: how have we arrived at the point where an individual who served in the U.S. military and was injured while doing so, spent 15 years in service to fellow mankind and has the will and aptitude to realize entrance to an Ivy League institution, can reach poverty status? I could care less about myself, but what about the next veteran in my position? Are they supposed to be poor?
Pete Freudenberger is a graduate student in the School of Social Policy & Practice. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.