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Native veteran raises profile of disability lawsuit

WASHINGTON – Bobby O’Daniel, a member of the Navajo Nation, recently spoke at a press conference highlighting a lawsuit that could impact the lives of American veterans by providing strengthened avenues for disability benefits.

The suit, filed by the Vietnam Veterans of America and the Veterans of Modern Warfare, seeks 90-day decisions on initial claims for disability benefits, and a 180-day period to resolve appeals. If the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs cannot meet these standards, the groups are requesting further injunctive relief in the form of interim benefits, which will provide veterans with a lifeline of support to allow reintegration into society.

According to the suit, the department takes an average of at least six months to reach an initial decision on an average benefit claim, and the actual delay is often much longer. Appeals to initial disability decisions, which are reversed approximately 60 percent of the time, take more than four years on average – with some stretching 10 years or more.

The suit also claims that the department has a backlog of more than 600,000 benefit claims, and the number is expected to increase with the 1.7 million troops that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

O’Daniel, who lives in Greenville, N.C., said that he wants to put a human face on the grim situation. Thirteen years after filing his first disability claim, he is still waiting to get full disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. He currently receives 10 percent disability, which equates to approximately $100 per month.

The 39-year-old father of a young son estimates that he has spent nearly $100,000 of his own money on his healthcare while waiting for Veterans Affairs to process his disability claims. He has had countless claims denied, and each time he has filed, increasingly more information has been required.

“I’ve given all I can — even blood,” O’Daniel told Indian Country Today in a post-conference interview.

“I do take it personally, because it affects me personally, but looking at the entire group, I definitely realize that I am not the only one who is not getting claims that we deserve and have earned.”

O’Daniel proudly served his country during the Gulf War, and he doesn’t regret a minute of it. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1987 to 1992, working his way up to the Lance Corporal rank, which saw him specializing in aviation technology. During Operation Desert Storm, he was part of the combat cargo division where his job was to deliver supplies to and from shore.

After O’Daniel was released from the military, his health quickly began to deteriorate. Over the years, he has experienced problems with his kidneys, his immune response system, bone loss, deteriorating cornea, bone aches, and he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.

Without financial assistance for proper treatment, he has tended to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs in order to feel better, and he had regular thoughts of suicide.

O’Daniel has lived out of his truck, lived off the land, and worked odd jobs, including construction. At one point, he began working for a railroad operator where he was initially successful in maintaining a job because he was able to work on his own with little or no interaction with others, but due to his physical ailments, he ultimately felt the need to quit.

A typical day for him now sees him taking his son to school, then coming home and going back to bed. He described his life as “sheltered,” and he spends a lot of time thinking about “what could have been.”

“I feel trapped within myself,” he said, adding that he tries to do some artwork, working with clay, but it’s difficult for him because he doesn’t judge it as valuable.

“I do still have the job of trying to be the best father and husband I can be under the circumstances.”

O’Daniel said he does not want a handout, just the money he feels he is owed as a part of serving the country.

“Due to the criteria the VA has on paper and on the books, I should be receiving 100 percent disability benefits.

“Every time I’ve been denied, I just feel ashamed of having to ask for something. … Even now, if I could work, I would.”

O’Daniel said that it has been a great struggle financially, but feels fortunate that one of his coping mechanisms has been the ability to horde what little money he has. One of the reasons he moved to North Carolina from California, he said, was due to the lower cost of living. He also continues to submit disability appeals to the Veterans Administration Regional Office in Charlotte.

Robin Crawford, a senior vice president at Ruder Finn, the firm handling communications involving the lawsuit, said that people like O’Daniel would be aided by a positive court decision because they would be able to get disability benefits faster.

“It’s just an archaic, convoluted system, and Bobby’s unnecessary suffering just isn’t right,” Crawford said.

While the lawsuit sorts itself out, O’Daniel said he is happy to be a conduit for information to other Native veterans who may be suffering under similar circumstances.

“I’ve got the eyes of my people, my family, my relations, looking at me for help, and that’s a great honor.

“As Natives, we are all about being a close-knit community, but we also have a strong sense of pride to serve. Many of us see service as a way to improve our lives off the reservation.

“It may sound crazy, but if I wasn’t in such the physical state that I’m in, I’d raise my hand to go over again now – at the drop of a hat.”