A veteran's frustration
By Rudi Keller
All Jolani McCanless wanted to do was be a Marine. And for almost three years, the Oak Ridge resident was doing what he loved — working on logistics to support fellow Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. And despite repeated injuries, he carried on.
But things changed Aug. 24, 2006, when he was given an "administrative separation" at New River Air Station in North Carolina because of a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. McCanless had also been diagnosed with schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, but that information isn't listed on his discharge papers.
Now he's back home, and he said this week that he's becoming increasingly frustrated by his forays into the Department of Veterans Affairs medical and benefits system. Paperwork is unexplainably lost at the John J. Pershing VA Medical Center in Poplar Bluff, Mo., he said, despite his repeated efforts to provide it.
Four times, he said, he gave paperwork to the VA clinic in Cape Girardeau. Each time, some or all of the documents were lost.
In the most recent attempt in mid-May, he said, he drove to Poplar Bluff to deliver the paperwork personally to the hospital. A call to check on his status revealed the hospital again doesn't have the papers.
Told he's not eligible
The VA has told him he's not eligible for benefits. "They said the injuries were not compensable or service-connected," McCanless said. When he asked why, he was told "because they could not get any paperwork from the Marines."
He rattles off a long list of physical injuries in addition to his psychological issues. Both legs and ankles were broken by stress fractures. He's had two concussions from being fired on in Iraq, a broken jaw, three broken ribs — again from being struck by a bullet that did not penetrate his body armor — and two herniated disks in his back. And he suffers from tinnitus, a ringing in the ears associated with exposure to loud noise.
The psychological issues really took hold as he was recovering from combat wounds, he said. "I felt extremely depressed," McCanless said. "I had lost a lot of friends, including some injured trying to protect me after I was wounded. I had to kill a 7-year-old girl holding a hand grenade because that is what I was ordered to do. It is something that just won't leave your mind, period."
The VA's program of disability benefits and health care is coming under increased scrutiny by Congress and the public as the casualty tolls in Iraq continue to mount. Recently discharged servicemen and women are flooding the system, and each must be screened.
Medical care for those recently released from service shouldn't be a problem once proper proof is in hand, VA officials said Friday. But to gain access to many benefit programs and long-term health care, an assessment of disability must show that the problems are service-related, said Sandi Davenport, the VA's St. Louis Region Public Affairs officer.
Davenport was in Cape Girardeau on Friday to attend a town-hall meeting on veterans issues led by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Davenport had not been able to examine VA records on McCanless' case, she said, but said the VA should be able to be resolve his problems.
"Benefits determination depends on the medical evaluation," she said.
And Chuck Hayden, public affairs officer at Pershing, said he, too, needs to review in detail McCanless' interactions with the VA system in order to comment on his frustrating experience. "I am not sure if he is contacting the right people," Hayden said.
McCanless has received a determination from the Social Security Administration that he is 100 percent disabled based on his mental and physical evaluations. But the Marine Corps, despite discharging him, listed his disability at zero, as did the VA, he said.
Part of the problem, he said, is that he did not get a copy of his medical records from the Marine Corps and VA officials have told him they aren't getting any results, either. He worries that his post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis is being kept quiet by a government that doesn't want to acknowledge the damage being done to soldiers through repeated tours in war zones.
"My personal opinion is that the government is not taking full responsibility for what they caused," McCanless said. "And the VA doesn't want to take full responsibility for me, or thousands more like me."
A Marine corporal reached at the New River Air Station personnel administration center said that the only diagnosis on McCanless' discharge paperwork is his borderline personality disorder. That is enough to discharge a Marine, said Lance Cpl. Cole, who declined to give his first name. McCanless' medical records have been sent to Quantico, Va., for storage, and even McCanless will have difficulty getting access, Cole said.
"He was afforded a chance to make copies before he left," Cole said. "Nobody can release documents on him to anybody but the VA."
After McCanless' issues were described to McCaskill, she said they sounded familiar after 14 town hall meetings with veterans around the state. "After four days of this tour, this story is not shocking," she said.
Getting McCanless copies of his medical records shouldn't be difficult for her, McCaskill said. But preventing future problems will need a strong effort from the VA and the Department of Defense to make those leaving the military understand how the system works and how to take advantage of promised benefits.
"In health care, 50 percent is the nightmare of the VA and 50 percent is the confusion of the people using the system," she said.
McCanless is living with his parents, Terry and Melody McCanless, at their home in Oak Ridge. He's talking to military recruiters about rejoining and will try to join the Army if the Marines won't take him back. But he's running out of anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medications from prescriptions he can't refill without a new doctor's authorization.
"He's been serious about getting back in," Terry McCanless said. "But he also feels he deserves some treatment. All he's saying is 'give me the paperwork so I can get some treatment.'"
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