The Veterans Services office glimmers like a mirage. It is renovated and comfortable, but sometimes broken and confused. Here, local veterans, frustrated and sick, begin the arduous process to claim disability compensation and medical treatment for service-related injuries and illnesses.
Several veterans from different wars sit in brown leather chairs and benches. Spread about the room, beneath heroically themed paintings framed and donated by local art students, the veterans wait for the chance to share their stories to a staff of friendly caseworkers.
Some of the veterans in the office have appointments, but most are walk-ins looking for help or to secure a monthly stipend. If their stories are good enough, and if they have records and witnesses and patience, lots of patience, then they may get the help or the cash they need in as little as ninety-days.
Without the caseworkers, though, many veterans, unable to navigate the complex web of the VA’s claim process, would be left without care and treatment. To help them, a collection of organizations like the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Military Order of the Purple Heart, AMVETS, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, have teamed up with the VA to assist the veterans with their claims paperwork.
“This is not the VA,” says Marilynn, a volunteer who works with the caseworkers. “But our caseworkers help veterans with their paperwork to get what they need from the VA.”
Like many war-weary veterans, the VA is under construction—a constant work in progress requiring aesthetic renovation and efficient structural enhancement. Nowhere is this as evident as the Long Beach VA Medical Center, the primary care facility for the veterans of Los Angeles and Orange Counties.
The façade is stuck in time, but nearby, the iron and glass skeleton of a modern, open concept looms on the horizon. There are signs of renovation, of rebirth in every open corner and hallway and in the skyline. There, an Army CH-47 “Chinook” hovers in the distance. Its twin rotors clash with the monotonous beeps and exhaust rumbles of construction traffic beneath the monolithic hospital tower. Up there, a large nest hangs above the “C” in Center, untouched beneath clouds that strafe as in a time-elapse video.
At the curb, in front of chain link fences, men from white service vans unload disabled veterans at the hospital’s main entrance. On cement benches, like fortified bunkers from the winter’s onshore breeze, bearded men dressed in flannel and olive drab fatigues smoke and laugh and cough. Through the entrance doors, past smiling photos of President Barack Obama and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, former Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki, dozens of veterans and dependents sit in airport terminal-like benches.
The waiting room is stale with faded eyes and gaping mouths. One man snores into the shoulder of his spouse while those who are awake stare blankly at flickering news images on a flat screen hanging on the wall.
In an open window across the room, healthcare workers exchange manila folders and files and a man with a clear cup and yellow cap stands above a turquoise line that leads down the corridor. But through a series of whitewashed hallways and a climb to the second floor, a slower and quieter world emerges.
On Marilynn’s waiting room desk, there are names scribbled on a yellow, legal tab. Some of the names are crossed out, some are highlighted, and others are asterisked. To many of the walk-ins, there exists no discernible method to track who has arrived and in what priority. Their names get put on several “next available” lists: one for Mike, one for Joel, and one for Denise.
Denise, a retired Army Mental Health officer, volunteers for the VFW and works full-time at the Veterans Service office. It is her birthday and she and Marilynn will not return after lunch. Mike and Joel work through lunch, like they do most days, to clear a backlog of waiting veterans and those trickling in.
“Marilynn and I are full-time volunteers. I’m here everyday and am proud to give back,” says Denise. “When I left service, the Army put me through school—I got a Master’s from Princeton. I’m grateful for that, so I want to give back, especially for those who need it.”
The waiting room is quiet and many of the veterans avoid eye contact with each other, but whenever a caseworker enters, many of them jump. It’s a strange dog-beat-dog ritual involving canes, oxygen tanks, and elderly men and their more agile spouses hoping to find out whether they are next.
But when addressed, their confidence expires.
Many of them, like an elderly man named Simms, speak as if they are recording their last thoughts into a black box. Their voices are awkward and frail, paced with shallow, enunciated breaths and fearful timidity.
“Yes, hi. My name is Simms. S-i-m-m-s. I need to find out if— no, no, I’m sorry,” he says, “I don’t have my paperwork with me today.”
Simms’ voice trails off, as if the caseworker turned into an answering machine.
Even the macho biker, who stumbles into the office wearing dark sunglasses and a black leather vest, speaks like he’s afraid of being heard. When a caseworker in a black Vietnam Veteran hat walks into the waiting room, the biker turns into a bumbling Private before his First Sergeant.
“Who are you here to see?” asks the caseworker.
“I came to see you,” says the biker, “about the Agent Orange. I saw you last time I was here and I wanted to find out about the paperwork.”
“Well, I’ve got to tell you,” says the caseworker, “I’ve got a case of C.R.S.”
CAN’T. REMEMBER. SHIT.
Joel is the new AMVETS guy.
He’s tall and looks and talks just like actor Jeffrey Tambor, but without the sarcasm. He’s been on the job for three weeks, but the veterans don’t know it. They appreciate him when he smiles or takes interest in their issue—the way that other caseworkers smile for lunchtime.
When the others leave for lunch, Joel walks to the clipboard and calls another name, Mr. Tucker, a thin sharp-dressed man in loafers. A few minutes later, Robert Ingram steps into the waiting room with his wife.
He’s fed up and his back hurts—“right here, right now.”
“I GOT SKIPPED,” the man yells.
Then he hobbles down the hall and into an open doorway where another caseworker talks to a veteran. From the opposite end of the hall, Joel walks over to Ingram and resolves the situation. A few minutes later, Mr. Ingram, slow to get up from the macaroni shaped couch in the center of the waiting room, but quick with his step once moving, follows Joel to his office to tell his story.
And Joel listens.
Everyday, the caseworkers hear the same stories of the same wars, but from different faces. They hear the same complaints, and everyday, they have to sort through the walk-ins—the impatient, the timid and those who can’t hear, who can barely speak without coughing, or those who can’t walk. Some of the caseworkers handle it better than others, and some veterans are more appreciative than others. The process isn’t easy to follow, but it’s better than it was three weeks ago, which was better than it was three years ago.