Arizona's Operation Enduring Freedom Memorial at Wesley Bolin Plaza in Phoenix, Ariz.
Things happen to Eric Batory now that didn’t happen to him before he was deployed.
Stuff that belongs in the cupboard ends up in the freezer. Stovetop burners smolder and faucets run for hours before he notices. He loses focus when he drives. There have been accidents.
When he was still living with his girlfriend, before the relationship fell apart and he was homeless for a spell, he’d wake up from nightmares kicking or pulling her and ordering her to “get on the defensive!”
There’s a code word for this kind of post-war experience: “I was different,” Batory says.
Eventually, the 27-year-old former combat medic, who survived two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, got himself to a doctor. He was screened for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. The results were no surprise to him — he was diagnosed with both.
Meanwhile, what work he can keep doesn’t pay much (the unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans hovers about two or three percentage points above the national average). The car accidents sent his insurance premium skyward. Making rent is always a struggle. Groceries sometimes have to come before utilities.
A stopgap for financial limbo
In October 2011, Batory filed a disability benefits claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs office in Phoenix. He knew he’d have a good chance of qualifying for a monthly check, and he knew he needed it.
But there was a problem: A backlog of more than 800,000 disability claims has crippled the VA benefits system around the country. At the Phoenix regional office, it takes close to a year, on average, to process a claim — about 100 days longer than the national average. Meanwhile, some young veterans like Batory are going broke as their claims wend through the system, waiting months to find out if they’ll be able to get compensation from the government for combat-related injuries and illnesses.
Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’ financial health might not grab headlines the way their struggles with physical and mental health can, but it’s a full-time job for Randy Meyer, who runs the Arizona Military Family Relief Fund. Created by state legislation five years ago, the fund has raised more than $1 million in the past year from donors, who get a tax credit for their gift. The fund’s board then redistributes that money the form of emergency grants of up to $20,000 to service members, veterans and their families.
Only six other states (California, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan and Missouri) offer emergency relief like Arizona’s. And only two of those extend their services beyond active-duty and National Guard service members to veterans and their families.
Midway through the disability claims process, the fund became an important option for Eric Batory. When a VA employee told him that it might be six to nine months before claims processors even looked at his paperwork, he applied for an emergency grant to cover car insurance and rent for half a year.
More than half of the fund’s applicants are veterans waiting on their disability claims, and the level of crisis among them varies. Some are just a bit behind on their bills; others are facing foreclosure. Batory worries he’ll end up homeless again. He says the emergency money, which the fund would pay directly to his insurance carrier and landlord, would help him focus more on school (he’s studying for a degree in microbiology) and less on squeaking by from one day to the next.
Layers of trauma
An Army Ranger who served next to Batory for two years described him in a letter of recommendation to a potential employer: “Eric has always proven himself to be a key player,” wrote 1st Sgt. Charles Salinero.”The timely emergency medical care he administered under fire and in the face of a determined and tenacious enemy on multiple occasions were nothing short of valorous … Eric forever lives the Ranger Creed in word and deed and exemplifies the demeanor of a ‘quiet professional.’”
Eric tells the story of his combat experience in a voice so soft it betrays the violence and horror of it all.
He rode on hundreds of dangerous missions in Iraq in 2005. Then there were the shifts at the combat support hospitals. “I would volunteer at the hospitals whenever we had downtime, you know, for extra experience,” he says. “I got a lot of exposure to wounded U.S. troops and locals. People would come in and they got shot by a sniper or they got blown up and you’re trying to kind of get their hearts to start working again.”
There were layers of trauma — witnessed and experienced. He traces his PTSD back to the first weeks he spent in Iraq, but it was Afghanistan in 2006 that sent him spinning.
“On our first mission, I was in a helicopter that got shot down,” he says. “We were taking off and we started to take fire. I could see the rounds going through the back … I could see the red streaks. They took out our engine. As we were going down we got hit by a [rocket-propelled grenade] on the side I was on. Alarms were going off. The horizon was moving around out the back of the helicopter.”
Then they hit the ground — and, remarkably, they survived.
“There was a period of time where I lost consciousness,” Batory continues. “For the following six or seven hours we had to defend the helicopter. … If you weren’t incapacitated, then you were out on the line defending the perimeter. It was a very volatile situation.”
For the next few days, he says, he felt almost drunk and had trouble speaking. The Army kept him in Afghanistan for another three months.
During that time, he says, “I was sweating every time I got on a helicopter — or started to shake any time it moved or we felt any turbulence that wasn’t expected. … It really shook my foundation, that specific incident. About nine months later I ended up deciding to get out.”
Therapists who treat veterans with PTSD say the condition is a normal response to an abnormal situation: Combat. Somewhere deep inside, Eric Batory understood that. He also understood that he was entitled to help through the VA. But there is still a stigma around PTSD. Maybe the chaos of his post-deployment life was just a mark of his own immaturity — the thought had occurred to him more than once. And was he really entitled to help? He says the VA claims process was not reassuring.
“I felt like the VA process was kind of punitive,” he says. “They regularly tell you, ‘If you miss this then you’re dropped from the system.’ If you have trouble maintaining appointments, they don’t take that into account. I felt like they were treating me with skepticism or a ‘Why now?’ attitude, even with records.”
“I’ve lived that process”
The process of applying for VA disability benefits is rigorous and, at times, unforgiving. Part of that is necessity — there are very real risks of fraud and overpayments — and part of it is a symptom of frustrated employees struggling to work their way out of a very deep hole.
Randy Meyer of the Arizona Military Family Relief Fund says he’s worked hard to keep his organization’s application process as simple and supportive as possible, especially for vulnerable young veterans like Batory.
“You’re a young guy, you’re in the military, just about everybody outranks you. It’s very intimidating to dig in to the system and make it work the way it should,” says Meyer. “I receive VA disability benefits, so I’ve lived that process. We have the success we have in our program because people are comfortable coming to us for help.”
Toward the end of October, the board gathers to review new applications for emergency grants. There are six in the stack: One is a veteran who needs help repairing the car that is his lifeline to school and work in sprawling Phoenix. There’s a homeless veteran — a man who still has back pain from being kicked out of a moving vehicle by a detainee in Iraq — applying for funds to pay for an intensive six-month transitional housing program. And there’s Eric Batory.
Each applicant’s story is read out loud and, at the October meeting, all but one is approved. Batory will get three months of car insurance and rent, and he’s encouraged to apply again if the money dries up and he still hasn’t gotten his disability checks from the VA.
At the end of October, not long after his emergency grant is approved, Eric Batory finally hears from the VA — a year after filing his claim. He’s been given him a disability rating of 70 percent, which means he’ll be receiving a monthly check of $1,272. Still, the emergency grant is a lifeline. He can’t know when exactly the disability checks will start coming. There will be back pay from the VA, but that doesn’t help him pay next month’s rent.
More than half a million veterans are already receiving disability checks for PTSD diagnoses. The VA expects to see more than a million new disability claims filed in the coming year, and it is upgrading its claims processing technology — though that process has been slow and the success of the new system may not be immediately obvious.
In the meantime, gap-fillers like the Arizona Military Relief Fund will likely continue to be critical for years to come. Lately, Arizona’s fund administrators have been getting calls from veterans’ advocates in other states interested in adding emergency relief to their toolbox of services.
In the scheme of things, it’s a small fix for a really big problem. But for Batory, it’s the world.
“It’s going to allow me to be able to focus on moving forward,” he says. “Because the main focus right now with my treatment is to move on and to develop the other side of myself.”