Valley Veterans Struggle to Heal Unseen Wounds

July 7, 2009 9:01:29 PM PDT
The realities of war can leave veterans of all ages with unseen and debilitating wounds. These days the on-going War on Terror has led to a backlog of nearly one million Benefits Claims at the nation's Veterans Administration and there are Valley veterans waiting for assistance. We talked with two such vets at the Fresno County Veterans Service Office in Central Fresno. Two men eager to explain why such help is needed by so many.

Robert Lowera, an Iraq War veteran, reminded us that a war zone is dangerous business with no real time off, "But if you take three-hundred and 65 days in a combat zone like Iraq it's going to get to you."

For Cruz Cuellar, a Vietnam War veteran, decades of distance from his battle field and the loss of a good friend hasn't healed the wounds either, "He committed suicide with a grenade. They wanted me to clean it up and i refused to do that."

These combat vets from the Iraq and Vietnam wars share a warriors bond. One, they believe, isn't being honored by the U.S. Veterans Administration. They respect the VA Healthcare system but not its Benefits side says Lowera, "You have the Healthcare system and then you have the Benefits and the Benefits don't always do what the Healthcare says."

Both men live with diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome or PTSD. And both turned to Fresno County's Veterans Service Office for help. Robert Lowera's doctor said he couldn't work. Lowera needed service-related disability benefits to survive. His doctor told him the PTSD he suffers with is directly related to his year soldiering in Iraq, "The first time I saw a head injury. It stuck with me forever, I'll never forget that --- not just that but gunfire. The fire fights. The ... mmmm. Boy, you know ... war, war is a tough."

Cruz Cuellar spent three decades suffering with his demons before getting help. He too is haunted by a year in Vietnam that included 45 days in a hospital recovering from wounds. Once well again he was sent back to his unit. Cuellar came home to drink heavily, pick fights and suffer without help, "Finally after 34 years I went to the Vet Center and they told me I had PTSD."

These men found help getting disability assistance at the Fresno County Veteran Service Center. It offers it free of charge to research and help file VA claims and other information veterans may need. I asked Charles Hunnicutt if he represent the VA System: "You don't work for the VA? Hunnicutt: No. You work for? Hunnicutt: Fresno County." The office is supported by County, State and Federal funds. There are 58 offices like this spread out over California and they also exist in every state in the America.

Even so, Hunnicutt says there is still a nationwide backlog of almost a million such claims, many from 21st century veterans, at the source of the benefits, the nation's Veterans Administration, "I think it's because the VA wasn't prepared for the volume of claims that were going to be filed."

It took more than a year and a half to resolve the claims of Cruz Cuellar and Robert Lowera. Hundreds of thousands of others claims are in that long VA line, waiting.

Related Links:
Fresno County Veterans Service Office
California Department of Veterans Affairs

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