Vietnam Veterans of America
It’s one of the most difficult times in your life. You’ve lost your spouse. Bills are coming in. You have to begin filling out forms and understanding rules. Suddenly, someone you’ve consulted tells you that you are not entitled to the benefits you expected.
What would you do?
If your spouse had a service-connected disability or disease—even if he or she never applied for VA benefits while alive—there may well be survivor’s benefits available for you. At a time like this, you need to know all the facts. Thanks to two widows who don’t want you to go through what they did, as well as a VVA veterans service officer who helped win their claims, an NVLSP advocate, and a VVA expert on veterans’ benefits, what follows is a summary of the process, the pitfalls, and where to turn for help.
VVA member and VSO Bill Bradley, who has worked with Chapter 54 in North Adams, Massachusetts, and now works with Bennington, Vermont, Chapter 601, was troubled by what he had seen. Widows were being misinformed. Some had gone for years, barely holding onto their homes, before finding out that they had legitimate claims to survivors’ benefits.
“These veterans, before they passed, had never used the VA or asked for anything from the VA,” Bradley said. “One reason for that is that most of the guys, when we came home from Vietnam, were rejected by service organizations like VFW.”
Bradley served in the U.S. Army in Thailand. “The main thing that made me join VVA,” he said, “was that one of my friends from childhood came home in a wheelchair.”
Although Massachusetts, like some other states, offers state veterans’ benefits in addition to those from the VA, it doesn’t provide enough training [to veterans service officers] on federal benefits,” Bradley said. So he ended up compiling information and bringing it to other veterans.
Bradley put us in touch with two widows who had navigated the process with help from him and from Becky Litchfield, an advocate who works with National Veterans’ Legal Services Program (nvlsp.org), which offers free help to veterans in obtaining their benefits.
“I Was Really Struck Down”
Soon after Tina’s husband died, she contacted a veterans representative in North Adams, Mass. “He said I wasn’t eligible for anything [except] the marker on his grave.” At the time, Tina was still working, but struggling. “I had a mortgage and at the time of his death I had two car payments, so I was really struck down for a time. I was living on my own and had no assistance of any kind.”
Two years later, after being told that she was entitled to benefits, Tina reached out to Bill Bradley. “Bill told me what types of documents I needed to start with, and I got the ball rolling at that point.”
One basis for confusion was that her husband had never applied for any VA benefits. “My husband was very, very proud of his country, a very proud Marine, but he was a very humble man,” Tina said. “He had a lot of effects from Agent Orange. At one point he had gone to the VA to be checked out, and he said that he felt so humiliated there that he ended up leaving before they were finished. That was before I met him—probably in the early ’80s or ’70s. I met him in 1989 and we were married in 1991. He had severe, terrible migraines every day, but he wouldn’t go back to the VA.”
That didn’t change the fact that Tina’s husband had died of service-connected illness, or that she, as his widow, was eligible for VA benefits.
After Becky Litchfield helped her with the necessary forms, the VA wrote back asking for more information. So, Tina said, Litchfield helped her “write a very detailed letter explaining exactly how Bob was involved in Agent Orange, and where specifically he was in Vietnam. We enclosed a letter from his doctor, and documentation that his problems were caused by Agent Orange.”
How long did the entire process take to complete? “I started filling out paperwork in August of 2016, and I was granted service-connected benefits effective May 18, 2017. They started in June of that year.”
“It’s so sad that I was told in the beginning I wasn’t eligible,” Tina said. “That’s the hardest thing. I’m sorry for the ladies who contact their local VA agent and get the same response that I did. Because I was just going to let it go. I had let it go for two years. So I am very grateful to Bill and Becky; they were just amazing. I cannot thank them enough.”
In addition to federal VA benefits, many states offer additional benefits to veterans’ widows and other survivors. In Massachusetts, Tina said, this includes a real estate tax abatement and, in some cases, an annuity. In addition, as Litchfield told her later, Tina’s town now has a policy that if a veteran has died due to a service-connected death, the widow, as long as she hasn’t remarried, doesn’t pay real estate taxes on her home.
“You Need to Fight for That”
Dianne, also of North Adams, encountered similar misinformation, even though her husband was a veterans service representative. “He tried to keep me informed,” she said. “He would say, ‘If you have any problems, always get in touch with Bill [Bradley]; he’ll help you through anything.’ So I did know some of the steps. But when it happens, you don’t really understand the whole process.”
Her husband had kept all of his information in a file for his wife. “He said, ‘If anything happens, you need to keep all of this paperwork together.’ The bills started coming in after the funeral; you don’t quite figure everything out. And someone said, ‘You need to go and see the representative in North Adams and he’ll help you with the paperwork.’ So I did make an appointment. But I felt he did not have a lot of information that was going to help me. Whenever I would ask him questions about benefits, he would say, ‘No, you’re not going to qualify for that.’
“I knew in my mind that I was entitled to more, so I went through the steps with him for a while, and then I called Bill and said, ‘I really need help with this.’ He said, ‘You need to be in Pittsfield, talk to the man there, and then file for benefits.’ So that’s what I did. He was very helpful; he helped me fill out the forms. I did get approved for part of my husband’s pension, the VA benefits, and then the state annuity that you get twice a year.”
There’s a list of information you have to have, Dianne said. “I was thankful to Bill for helping me through a lot of it. You have to have a DD-214, death certificate, marriage certificate, divorce papers, and statements from the doctor. For months I just walked around with his folder, because no matter where I was, somebody needed something from it.”
How long did the process take? “The first part took about five or six months to get benefits. And then the state annuity probably took eight to nine months. But Bill is the one who said, ‘You need to fight for that.’ You feel like you’re going to lose everything in the meantime. You’re struggling to make ends meet and just figure everything out.”
Reflecting on the process, Dianne said: “If you don’t know, they won’t help you. They deny you. And it will take a long time to get the benefits. I knew what to expect, because my husband told me. But I’ve talked to people who have no clue. One woman came up to me and said, ‘When my husband dies, I could never claim it, because he has an ex-wife.’ There’s a lot of misleading information out there. In smaller towns where there’s not a lot of information, it’s even harder.”
AVOIDING CONFUSION AND DELAYS
To avoid the kind of confusion Tina and Dianne experienced, Alec Ghezzi, VVA’s Deputy Director of Veterans’ Benefits, recommends “making sure that the person they’re speaking to is well informed. One of the things they would need to consider when they’re filing a claim for the first time is to contact their local VA regional office. At every regional VA office there is a VA employee whose job is to help people file claims. And there are also organizations like VVA that have service officers who are able to help people file claims in those locations. And the NVLSP can definitely help with the filing of claims and answering questions that widows may have about their benefits.”
Ghezzi does not believe it’s deliberate. “A lot of the individuals who are working to help veterans on the front lines are volunteers, or their training may be slightly limited,” he said. “It’s such a large program that inevitably you will have some individuals who, for whatever reason, do not give the correct information. Or sometimes, they don’t convey the information correctly, leading to misunderstandings. If widows are not comfortable with what they are being told by the VA or their local service officers, they have the option of contacting a private attorney. For that, I would recommend the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates (NOVA). On their website, there’s a list of active attorneys in every state. So that’s an option, although attorneys do charge a fee that typically ranges from 20 percent to 30 percent of the retroactive award.”
One more reason for confusion, Ghezzi said, “is that some people might look at different criteria. In order to get DIC benefits, one of the criteria is that your spouse had to be rated at 100 percent for ten years, and most people don’t have that. But the alternative requirement—and you don’t have to have both, it’s either one or the other—is for the veteran, the spouse, to have passed away due to a service-connected disability. What I suspect a lot of people aren’t aware of is that you can prove service connection even if the veteran never filed a claim for the condition that led to his death. For example, if he died of complications from diabetes and served in Vietnam, it’s a well-known condition linked to Agent Orange exposure. There’s a presumptive service connection on that. But for nonpresumptive cases, if she files a claim, sometimes they can decide that he should have been service-connected, and grant DIC.
“That may have been why some of these women were told they didn’t have a claim. It was probably ignorance, not malicious intent.”
Helping the VA Help You
“Having worked these cases,” Ghezzi said, “I’ve found that a frequent stumbling block is where a death certificate doesn’t reflect the multiple causes of death. So if a veteran’s service-connected condition was one of the multiple contributing factors, but he died of a heart attack and all they put on the death certificate was “heart attack,” it would make the widow’s life a lot easier if that could be corrected to show that there were multiple factors. We’ve had several widows talk to whoever wrote the death certificate and ask for it to be amended. It would be ideal to do that before they file the claim; that way, they can submit the amended death certificate. That will just make it much more likely for the regional office to grant it. You are always going to be more successful if something fits perfectly, squarely, where they expect it to be.”
In some cases, claims can be expedited. “That, unfortunately, requires the claimant to be either terminally ill or homeless, or in danger of becoming homeless,” Ghezzi said. “If they fall short of those extremes but feel that there’s a compelling reason for their case to be expedited—if there’s some hardship they are experiencing—they can request that. Also, if the widow is 85 years or older, she can request expedited processing at the regional level. If the case is at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, the age is 75. And you can always request expedited processing if you don’t meet those criteria; there is just no guarantee that they’ll act on it.”
Ghezzi recommends that people “keep track of the decisions that they receive, and make sure they don’t miss any filing deadlines if they are not satisfied with what they receive.” Also: “Gather all the medical evidence that would help substantiate the claim, and then submit it to the VA. The VA does have a duty to help the veteran, and in this case the widow, to get all the information that she needs—but the volume of the claims that they are processing doesn’t always allow them to do as much as probably could be done. So any time that the widow can get that information for herself, that increases the chances of it going right for her.”
All of the necessary VA forms are available online, The VA website contains guides to filing for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC): Those eligible for DIC are a deceased veteran’s:
Other Important Notes:
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