Navy veteran Hosea Roundtree, 54, at his home in Yuba City, says he suffers from flashbacks of the shelling he witnessed in Beirut while aboard a U.S. Navy ship in 1983.
Tens of thousands of veterans across California will spend this Veterans Day as they did last year -- waiting to see if the Department of Veterans Affairs will grant their disability claims. Our media partner, the Center for Investigative Reporting, found that many of those veterans may be unfairly denied their benefits because of the high rate of errors made by the V.A. We profile one veteran's case, and the plight of the V.A. employee who tried to help him. Reporter: Aaron Glantz
Tens of thousands of veterans across California are spending this Veterans Day as they did last year -- waiting to see if the Department of Veterans Affairs will grant their disability claims. Many of those veterans are likely to be unfairly denied their benefits because of the high rate of errors made by the V.A.
Hosea Roundtree says that's what happened to him. Sitting at a card-table chair in his kitchen north of Sacramento, the feisty 54-year-old veteran flips through photographs of his 17 years in the Navy. He says he spent more than a decade homeless and in jail, and points to an old photo of himself when he was addicted to crack cocaine.
"This is my addiction time here," says Roundtree, "losing my teeth, my mustache not properly trimmed, glassey eyed. It's not me."
When he finally got into a treatment program in 2005, Roundtree was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. He filed a disability claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Two years later, the V.A. denied Roundtree's claim, saying there was no evidence he had engaged in combat.
"There's more than one way of getting wounded," Roundtree explains. " I was mentally wounded."
Roundtree says his life went downhill after a tour off the coast of Beirut in 1983 -- when he watched from the deck of his Naval destroyer as it shelled the Lebanese coast. "This is when I seen these guys running across the airport, being shot down," he recalls. "I seen guys being killed. From that point on, my whole life changed."
After Beirut, Roundtree says he suffered flashbacks and night sweats and couldn't adjust to the relative banality of peacetime. His says his condition worsened after a second tour, in the Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. In 1993, Roundtree had a major breakdown. He walked out on his wife and two daughters. It would be 12 years before the staff at the drug treatment program helped him file his disability claim.
That claim eventually landed on Jamie Fox's desk at the V.A. regional office in Oakland, where she had just started working. A Navy veteran herself, Fox was surprised to see that Roundtree's claim was slated for denial. "I saw all of the remarkable things he'd done," says Fox. "He's done some very remarkable tours. I thought it was very strange that they weren't able to verify it."
So Fox decided to go online. "I just did a quick Google search on military history sites, says Fox, "and I was able to verify that his ship that he was on was actually in combat."
Fox wrote a four-page memo to her supervisor arguing that the V.A. should revisit Roundtree's claim. Five months later, she got a termination letter citing "failure to follow instructions" and "misuse of time" for not immediately sending Roundtree a letter denying his benefits.
"It was devastating," she says. " I was in shock."
Michael Short/Center for Investigative Reporting
Hosea Roundtree (center) stands aboard the USS Arthur W. Radford in an old photo. He was on the Navy destroyer in 1983 during the shelling of Beirut. When Roundtree filed a disability claim for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression more than two decades later, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied his claim, saying it could find no evidence that he had engaged in combat.
Fox filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the V.A. The agency declined to comment on her case. But in a deposition, Fox's former boss defended her dismissal, saying it didn't matter if the agency's decision in Roundtree's case was "right or wrong."
Gordon Erspamer , an attorney at the law firm Morrison and Forrester who has represented veterans for over three decades, says he's not surprised by what happened to Roundtree and Fox.
"This kind of stuff goes on every day," says Erspamer. "The V.A. claims system is an absolute mess, from top to bottom."
Last year the V.A.'s Board of Appeals found errors in three-quarters of the cases it heard.
"They're not interested in quality," Erspamer argues. "They are interested in production and getting the decisions done, regardless of whether they are right or wrong."
The V.A. acknowledges it makes mistakes in 14 percent of disability claims. The Center for Investigative Reporting analyzed a year's worth of audits by the V.A.'s Inspector General. The analysis showed an error rate of 38 percent in a sample of high profile claims, like traumatic brain injury and the illnesses caused by Agent Orange. At the V.A.'s California offices -- Oakland, San Diego, and Los Angeles -- auditors found errors in more than half of the cases they reviewed.
Congresswoman Jackie Speier has been working to clear up the huge backlog of claims at the Oakland office where Fox once worked. "I think that the system is broken," says Speier, "and we've got to fix it."
The V.A. says it's begun to computerize and "retool" procedures, and aims to all but eliminate errors by 2015. But Speier says the system needs to be reformed faster. "No veteran should have to be homeless waiting to have a determination on whether or not their disability claim is going to be approved or not, and not be able to access the resources he or she needs."
Speier says Fox should be re-instated.
Meanwhile, for Hosea Roundtree, life has slowly improved. He's reconciled with his family. He's also landed a job as a cook at the V.A.'s medical center in Sacramento.
Roundtree never knew that Jamie Fox fought to approve his benefits until she looked him up on Facebook. The two met, and in June, Fox helped Roundtree file a new claim for post traumatic stress disorder.
"It's not just for me," Roundtree explains. " It's for me and every other vet that's out there that's suffering. I want these vets coming back from overseas to get fair, better treatment." But six years after he first sought compensation for the mental wounds he received in uniform, Roundtree is still waiting.