Last Memorial Day, Sue Christensen had a revelation. A retired nurse administrator, Christensen, then 83, was laying a wreath at the veterans' monument in East Norriton, Pennsylvania, when she heard a speaker at the remembrance ceremony say that many vets suffer lingering problems from their wartime service—and don't realize they could receive help from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). "It suddenly hit me," recalls Christensen. "For 57 years I've suffered from panic attacks. Could it be from my time in the Navy?"
After the ceremony she approached the speaker, John Nowak, who works with the Montgomery County Office of Veterans Affairs in suburban Philadelphia. She explained that she had been a Navy nurse in a plastic surgery clinic at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, during the Korean War. Her duties included patching up the disfigured faces of young Marines who had just returned from the front. Did he think that this experience could account for her suffering?
Nowak suggested she visit his office, where she met with the director of veterans' services, who referred her to a counselor at the VA Medical Center in nearby Coatesville, Pennsylvania. There, she was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and given a 30 percent disability rating, a disability-compensation payment of nearly $5,000 a year, and free psychological counseling.
Thanks to this support, the veteran nurse has begun to heal. "I'm already doing much better," she says. "I finally feel like a full person."
Christensen is one of 23 million veterans in the United States today, some 8 million of whom receive VA benefits. But congressional sources and critics say that many other deserving veterans are not availing themselves of assistance. Some, like Christensen, simply don't know they are eligible for benefits. "It never occurred to me that the VA could do anything for me," she says, noting she had never served in a war zone.
As Christensen learned to her advantage, Congress has expanded veterans' benefits—including disability compensation, pensions, and health care—over the past two decades and has eased eligibility standards. This is a vitally important development. For many veterans, VA benefits could mean the difference between a life of abject poverty or a secure old age. For others it can mean the difference between suffering from an undiagnosed service-related illness or receiving treatment from a specialist in war trauma.
So, what are the benefits available to veterans?
Misconceptions about this program abound. First of all, a service-connected disability need not be a combat injury. Any injury suffered or aggravated while in uniform can be considered—even injuries incurred while traveling to or from National Guard duty.
Second, compensation payments are unrelated to income, and they are also available, at a reduced level, to surviving spouses. Monthly payments are based on the degree of disability, which can range from 10 percent (for tinnitus, for example) to 100 percent (unable to work or function normally), as determined by a doctor and subject to appeal. A 30 percent disability rating currently merits $376 per month in compensation ($421 if the veteran is married); vets who are 100 percent disabled receive $2,673 per month ($2,823 if married). To view compensation levels for various disability ratings, visit the Department of Veterans Affairs.