In 1961, when many avoided the Draft, Ray Sarbacker decided to enlist in the military. A fresh-faced kid of 18, Sarbacker wanted to be a patriot like his dad. Sarbacker’s father was one of the WWII heroes who’d parachuted into France on D-Day. Sarbacker knew his father was traumatized by what he’d witnessed that day — so much so that he’d never discussed it. But young Sarbacker, determined to follow in his dad’s footsteps, joined the Navy.
Within months, Sarbacker found himself on an aircraft carrier. When he’d enlisted, U.S. action in Vietnam was limited to “advisors” on the ground, but the nation’s engagement escalated rapidly. Soon, Sarbacker’s carrier was in the Gulf of Vietnam, and Sarbacker’s responsibilities included washing Agent Orange off of helicopters and planes that returned from missions. Then, overworked and exhausted, Sarbacker and his shipmates would sleep on the carrier’s deck, using their Agent Orange-soaked towels as pillows until the next wave of helos returned.
Sarbacker completed his service in January 1966.
When his dad came home from Europe, there were parades in the streets. When Sarbacker came home from Vietnam, the streets roiled with protests. And Sarbacker became like his dad in an unexpected way: He didn’t talk about his service and moved on. He had a wife and kids. But being a sailor never left him. He bought a boat and took the kids on exciting (and occasionally terrifying) adventures across the seas.
Today, the 78-year-old Sarbacker (now my stepdad) is still a proud patriot but one with heart issues, diabetes and Stage 3 kidney disease — probably all related to his Agent Orange exposure. He’s hoping that, any day now, he’ll hear about his long-overdue disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Eventually, he won’t get less than $152.64 a month — although it could be a thousand or more. However, he doesn’t get a dime until the VA issues a “final determination.”
Sarbacker’s VA application has been pending for almost three years. If it goes much longer, he’ll have fought the VA longer than he fought the Vietnam War.
And while the federal government made Herculean efforts to aid civilians during the COVID pandemic — distributing funds and cutting red tape — veterans like Sarbacker must comply with the same bureaucracy that’s always been in place. Even though COVID has made compliance next to impossible.
Sarbacker is one of 560,000 Vietnam War-era sailors and Marines exposed to Agent Orange while at sea. But because these “Blue Water veterans” never set boots on the ground in Vietnam, they weren’t eligible for Agent Orange-related benefits in the same way others were. Advocates fought for years until a law was changed, granting Blue Water vets access to those benefits.
In January 2020, a flood of Blue Water applications began.
Then along came COVID.
VA offices shut down, so processing applications screeched to a halt. Hundreds of thousands of vets were placed on waiting lists for medical exams while mail went unopened, and files were unreviewed.
At the same time, the pandemic also impacted the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), the National Archives office charged with maintaining 56 million files of military records.
In the Before Times, VA would request documents from NPRC, while another 20,000 requests came in each week from the public. Even though older veterans’ documents only exist on paper, stored in warehouses like the one in the finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark, NPRC filled most requests within a week.
But COVID — with onsite outbreaks — has forced NPRC to operate with a skeleton staff since March 2020. By fall of 2020, NPRC had 100,000 VA requests and its public backlog skyrocketed to 381,000. NPRC caught up with VA’s requests by April 2021, but NPRC’s public backlog reached more than half a million.
On January 24, 2022, 113 members of Congress pleaded with Archives to fully reopen NPRC. It’s now taking up to 18 months for veterans to receive waited-for military records — the veterans’ keys to medical care, disability benefits, federal retirement benefits, state tax deductions, home loans, and more.
The Blue Water Veterans, VA’s overtaxed system, Archives and VA COVID-closures and slowdowns — each compounded problems of the other. And veterans like Sarbacker are caught in the center of this Venn Diagram of bureaucracy.
Archives has estimated its backlog will not be resolved until the end of fiscal year 2022.
In November 2021, VA announced its printer doesn’t have enough paper to mail decision letters on a timely basis.
Compare that to COVID-related aid for civilians:
The federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program has authorized $793 billion in loans to businesses and nonprofits while another program has approved $316 billion more. Almost 162 million households received stimulus payments in 2020. In 2021, 161 million payments were distributed, with 90 million sent in one week.
The wheels of government can turn quickly after all. It’s just a question of priorities.
Why aren’t veterans a priority?
At least through the During Times, let’s end the policy that prevents veterans from getting any disability payment before a final determination. As soon as a veteran is found eligible, VA should start paying the minimum due.
While Archives resolves its backlog, Congress should give veterans an interim way to verify service — self-attestation and an Archives IOU — just as it took steps to help civilians access needed aid.
Veterans, especially elderly veterans like Sarbacker, deserve better.
Following Vietnam, Americans came to regret how poorly we’d treated our military during the war. We promised that, going forward, we’d support them.
But the Vietnam War veterans we let down fifty years ago are the exact same men and women we are failing today.
Ashley Merryman is the coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers, “NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children” and “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.” An attorney, she served in the Pentagon from 2018-2019 as the Special Advisor on Diversity and Inclusion for the Chief of Naval Operations and then, in 2020, as a special advisor for the Department of the Navy on the prevention of military sexual assault. She is currently working on a new book.
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