Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The man who wasn’t what he appeared to be

Back when I was the editor of The Bradenton Times, I heard about and decided to cover a story that was going to be a real stretch for me.

The local homeless aid groups and the county were planning on holding what they called a “Homeless Standdown” on a Saturday at the county’s fairgrounds. Although the event was ostensibly for homeless veterans, actually it was for everyone who was homeless, regardless of veterans status.

Many of the homeless were construction workers who had lost their jobs when the real estate market collapsed, and a few were veterans. There were also some people of Hispanic descent, which led to the usual jingoism and ranting about “illegals” from some folks, even the volunteers.

Although there are statistics thrown about for the number of homeless veterans out there, I tend to avoid the debate because it tends to become an argument. Not all the homeless are veterans and not all veterans are homeless. Not all Vietnam veterans are homeless, either, despite what some people seem to think.

Having nearly been burned by a fake Vietnam veteran back when I was a copy editor at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune (he gave his age as 47 at the time when I was 44. I knew that since I was 12 when the war ended in 1973, there was no way he could have been in Vietnam. I called the reporter, who pressed him and the “veteran” finally admitted that he had served in the Army in the late 1970s and had seen Vietnam War movies.), I tended to ask for proof.

Still, I took the veterans’ stories at face value that day; I’d rather err on the side of caution rather than cause a confrontation. Many people were embarrassed to be talking to a reporter and worried about their name appearing in the newspaper or on a website. I couldn’t say I blamed them.

The fellow with the white hair was attracting a lot of attention from the aid workers, who were treating him as a war hero. In the middle of my conversation with the man, one county employee walked over to him and said, “Thank you for your service in Vietnam, and the sacrifice of your leg.”

But my conversation with him, which was mostly him talking, was very revealing. I asked him if he wanted to be interviewed and he said he did. He talked and talked about his mental illness and being homeless, and finally I told him that I was a veteran, too, and asked the man when and where he had served.

“In the Air Force, for about six months in 1979,” he said. “I had just gotten out of a mental hospital when I joined.” He was discharged for mental illness.

His age was a year younger than me, he said.

What about the leg, I asked. Oh, he said, that happened much later.

I’ve already given the impression of having no compassion or respect for the military because I said the worship has to stop, and military folks have to stop acting like every incident of less than total awe is not a sign of hatred. I respect those who are serving and sacrificing, but let’s be reasonable: they are getting paid well and get benefits way beyond what we in the civilian world get, and deservedly so.

But I worry that there are people who might start lying about their service for sympathy, which hurts all those who need help. The white-haired man I interviewed did nothing to correct any of the mistaken views of those who encountered him that day.

Though ineligible for veterans benefits, he was working the system for all it’s worth and playing on the sympathies of others, and doing it quite well.

Now, I won’t extrapolate to accuse all veterans of lying because I know it’s not true.

A few years ago, for example, there was a story in The Palm Beach Post about a Vietnam veteran Marine who was living in the woods near the Veterans Affairs hospital in Riviera Beach, and in other places in the county.

A sheriff’s deputy and veterans service officer had tried to help him obtain the benefits he was supposed to get as a homeless veteran. He wore dirty old camouflage uniforms, talked the talk of a Marine, and complained that the VA refused to acknowledge that he was a veteran. He said he was estranged from his brother in North Carolina.

The VA repeatedly rejected his service claims on the grounds that there was no record of his military service, and he retorted that they just didn’t want to help him or other veterans.

Well, the folks who had adopted his cause raised the money so he could get a bus ticket back to his brother’s, and saw him off on the bus to North Carolina.

A few months later, he was back in the area, though. And that’s when the story turned weird, for it was actually true that the man – despite his pretensions – had never served in the military and actually was ineligible for veterans benefits. He later died.

That’s a sad story, of course, but it’s important that the VA focus on serving those who qualify for its services.

I’ll leave you with a last story: mine. A friend of mine who was a volunteer at the VA hospital in Riviera Beach advised me to register with the VA for service and get a priority rating. At the time, I lived in Palm Beach County but had health coverage through my employers, so I felt that I would be imposing paperwork and other burdens on a department already struggling to help those who needed help a lot more than me.

I maintained that attitude until I finally lost my job and health insurance, then the COBRA subsidy that came in under President Barack Obama. The process was mostly completed online, and I eventually received a priority number, albeit a very low one. I never had need to use the VA services, and when I got my job at the Gainesville Sun I of course went with its health insurance coverage.

I’m a veteran and proud of my service, but I’d never overstate it for sympathy or advantage. I even felt bad when I was advised that I could get job search help because of my veterans status, because I felt there were others from the recent wars who needed it more than I did. I don’t blame veterans for seeking out and using the services that are available, but I recognize that there are those who would “game” the system and play on sympathies, as the two men I described did.

That doesn’t indict the system of help that has developed for veterans, just those who would try to cheat or abuse it.

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July 14, 2010 - Posted by | Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. Good entry and pretty much dead on. I’m a retired Marine, I never saw combat but I did have a disability rating ( hypertension and degenerating disks) and small additional pension, Unfortunately the disability worsened to the point where I suffered a massive stroke in April of 2011. The VA has already agreed that my stroke was directly related to my disability. I am simply waiting now for them to approve my pension. Unfortunately it takes from 12-18 months to get an approval and back pay, I believe that the system is “played” by both veterans who get out and try to get a post service injury or condition linked to service or fakes who never served a day trying to get in. The VA has to examine each case brought forward thoroughly, taking time from working on valid cases. Every panhandler knows that the Vet story usually works. Those that claim that the services “lost” their records are pretty much full of crap.

    Comment by Eugene D Harless Jr | June 4, 2012 | Reply

  2. Your comment is very appreciated.

    It really frustrates me when I read a story about the VA screwing someone out of deserved and earned benefits. A neighbor of mine told me once that I should try to get a job at the VA, and I said that after my experience in the Postal Service, I had sworn off working for the government because of the mess the PO was.

    When I worked for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune back in 2007, I did a presentation on covering the military and veterans issues for the staff. One thing I mentioned, and that I learned from my own research, was that the infamous “St. Louis fire” that destroyed records didn’t destroy everything, and local commands often had records so a service folder could be rebuilt if needed.

    One sad thing is that veterans with bad discharges often are denied services. The paper did an article about one guy who was wounded in action, had PTSD and a BCD after a court-martial and time in the stockade. He was homeless and kept getting arrested, too.

    You’re right that the system is played. I see people who served when I did (late 70s, early 80s) or in the peacetime after that who are suddenly claiming that the recent wars have brought back memories and made them disabled. Or they blame the effects of age (hey, I’m 51 now) on their service 30 years ago.

    I’m glad I served, and I don’t want to be a burden on a VA under stress from those who did a lot more than I did, like the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, or you. You and they deserve it a lot more, and should get the best service.

    Comment by Vincent Safuto | June 4, 2012 | Reply


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