Enid, Okla. — There are more than 21 million veterans — including more than 312,000 in Oklahoma — living in the United States, according to 2014 U.S. Census Bureau figures.
About 20 percent of those veterans suffer from some form of disability due to injuries or environmental exposure incurred while in the military, and about a third rely on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for medical treatment.
But, a far greater number of veterans may be suffering in silence, either unaware of or reluctant to apply for benefits they earned through their service, said Craig Vance, a chapter service officer at Northwest Oklahoma Disabled American Veterans in Enid.
“They don’t know what benefits are out there for the asking,” Vance said. “Or, they think ‘I’m not that bad,’ or ‘There’s people who need it more than me,’ and they’re reluctant to ask for the benefits they’ve earned.”
Vance, a native of Enid and 30-year veteran Navy officer, spends his days helping veterans plug into the VA benefits to which they’re entitled.
“We’re here to provide free support to veterans and their families for state and federal benefits,” Vance said.
He said Enid DAV service officers see between 250 and 400 veterans each year who need help determining eligibility for benefits, and help them navigate VA claims procedures.
Vance said out-processing from the military has improved in recent years, better connecting veterans with their benefits. But, he said, many veterans who need the benefits most — from the First Gulf War and earlier — don’t know they may be eligible for benefits, or have given up trying to work their way through the system.
“It used to be when you were getting out, they’d take everyone in a big room and say ‘If you want to find out about your VA benefits stick around; if not, you can go home,’” Vance said. “Well, guess what everybody did.”
Vance explains the benefit application system in terms to which most veterans can relate: it’s like getting compensation for damage to your vehicle.
“If you go out and buy a new car, and as soon as you drive it off the lot someone dings it, you’re going to expect someone to pay for the depreciation in that vehicle,” Vance said. “All this is, is Uncle Sam paying for the depreciation on your body, because you were one way when you went in, and you’re this way when you came out.”
Even with that explanation, Vance said it’s sometimes difficult to get veterans to see there are disabilities that don’t look like combat wounds.
“We have guys come in all the time who think because they’re not missing an arm and a leg, they’re not disabled,” Vance said.
He said it’s far more common for veterans to suffer the long-term effects of training injuries or exposure to industrial hazards than to have had combat injuries.
Those effects show up in ailments like heart disease, diabetes, hearing loss, joint injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury, Vance said.
“Those things don’t show externally and they might not show up right away,” Vance said, “but they could be disabilities related to your service, and they can have a real impact on your life.”
Eugene “Vick” Lippard is well-versed in the long-term effects of military service, and the difficulties of working through the VA benefit system.
Lippard enlisted in the Oklahoma National Guard in 1956, when he was 15 years old. They were a little more relaxed about checking records back then, he said. As soon as he was old enough, at age 17, he changed his enlistment to the U.S. Navy.
Lippard served four years in the Navy as a machinist mate and boiler technician on the destroyer USS Beale, including service at the Bay of Pigs and during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
He said he loved his time in the service. But, like many veterans of that era, he worked in industrial conditions that wouldn’t pass standards today.
One of his duties was to regularly clean the boiler tubes in the destroyer’s engine room, grinding residue out of the tubes and exhaust stacks.
“Back then we used no protection, except to maybe put a damp cloth over your face,” Lippard said. “You’d come out of there black with the dust, and be coughing up black stuff for half a day.”
Lippard said he never really thought about breathing the dust, or working in loud engine rooms without hearing protection.
After leaving the Navy Lippard went on to a variety of professional fields, including working in the oilfield, for OG&E, and as a contractor for the Department of Defense and the National Park Service.
It was while working in Rocky Mountain National Park in 1999 that Lippard first discovered he was having trouble with his breathing.
He said he was diagnosed with diminished lung capacity, and he started calling the VA to ask about benefits and help covering the cost of his breathing treatments.
“It wasn’t doing any good,” Lippard said. “I would call them and I’d end up getting put on hold for 30 minutes and then get hung up on. I wasn’t getting anywhere with the VA. I ended up giving up on it, and just took early retirement.”
Lippard moved back to Enid in 2003 and continued calling the VA, but said he still “wasn’t having any luck.”
It wasn’t until a friend recommended he visit the DAV, where he met Vance, that Lippard’s luck with the VA turned.
“He (Vance) wrote everything up and sent it off, and got the ball rolling,” Lippard said. “It wasn’t a month, and I started hearing from the VA.”
Before long the VA assessed Lippard at 20 percent disability for hearing loss from his time in the Navy, and another 30 percent for an old neck and shoulder injury suffered from a fall in the National Guard.
The VA also determined he had partial loss of lung capacity, likely due to asbestos exposure in the Navy.
“All I was expecting to get was my inhalers,” Lippard said. “It wasn’t very long and they ended up getting me 50 percent disability on my lungs.”
That assessment put Lippard at 100 percent disability overall, providing him benefits he didn’t think he’d ever see.
“There’s no chance I would have gotten anywhere with the VA without Craig (Vance),” Lippard said. “He is a true Enid hero.”
Lippard said he doesn’t waste any opportunity to tell other veterans about the DAV, including two of his sons and five grandsons.
His youngest of five sons, Raymond Lippard, is finishing a 24-year career in the Air Force, and was awarded a Bronze Star for combat action in Afghanistan. Lippard’s second-oldest son, Jimmy Lippard, served as a diver in the Navy and was medically retired for injuries suffered in the First Gulf War.
“It’s very, very important that all veterans go and check their benefits,” Lippard said. “I stress that to everybody.”
Vance said the VA application process can be daunting, but with a veteran service officer it’s a lot easier to navigate.
“The bad thing about the VA is, it’s a huge bureaucracy,” Vance said. “But, the good thing about the VA is, they’re a huge bureaucracy. They have a huge rule book they have to follow, and if they don’t follow it I can roll it up and stick in their eye. That’s the advantage of using a veteran service officer.”
Vance encouraged veterans to visit the DAV to make sure they’re fully accessing their benefits.
“The worst thing that can happen is the VA says ‘no,’” Vance said. “But, if the VA says ‘no,’ then they will tell us exactly why it was rejected and a veteran service officer can go back through your claim and see if there’s a way we can make it fit their criteria.”