Vietnam vet got help through VA's red-tape jungle
By Diane Carman
Denver Post Staff Columnist
Article Last Updated: 05/17/2007 01:48:08 AM MDT

The first thing Robert E. Lee did after he got a check for $7,680 from Veterans Affairs on Monday was go to the grocery.

"We got meat, cereal, milk, juice, bread," said his companion, Cherie Butler. "We've been pigging out."

Lee is a destitute Vietnam veteran disabled by cancer believed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange. He did two tours of duty with the Marines in the 1960s.

In 2000, he had his cancerous larynx, thyroid and lymph glands removed in emergency surgery. After too many sick days from two rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, he lost his job at Wal-Mart. He applied for disability benefits from the VA but never received assistance because of delays in processing his claim.

When Denver veterans advocates Mike Collins and Jim Hudson learned that he faced eviction after failing to pay his rent for several months, they mobilized every contact they had to help him. With pressure from Collins, Hudson and others, the logjam at the VA broke quickly.

"We don't have everything done yet," Collins said after he heard that Lee had received his first check from the VA, "but at least he's got some breathing room now."

Lee said he was informed by phone that the VA has rated him 100 percent disabled. The check he received Monday is for benefits dating back to January. "They told me they'd pay me $2,560 a month from now on, more when my rating goes up," he said.

Jon Price Jr., national service officer with the Disabled American Veterans in Denver, said Lee could be rated up to 170 percent disabled because he suffers from hepatitis C, memory loss, post- traumatic stress disorder, impaired vision and other conditions believed to be related to his combat service.

The DAV is gathering Lee's medical records to complete the review process and get the VA to upgrade his benefits.

"We'll deal with Robert's claim and make sure he gets everything he deserves," said Price, a 1991 Persian Gulf War veteran who went to work at the DAV after he was disabled when he stepped on a land mine.

For Price, Lee's case is nothing unusual. He is just one of thousands of veterans struggling to get benefits, he said.

"This is a nationwide problem. The VA system as a whole is seriously understaffed."

Price blames it on budget shortfalls.

"The staff at the VA is really frustrated. They're good people. They want to help these guys. But they are overwhelmed."

Until more money is available, "the inability to get a claim done in a timely manner is going to continue."

Price said the volume of claims is "nonstop and getting worse" as injured Iraq war veterans join thousands of Vietnam vets seeking help.

But vets do look out for each other.

Contributions have poured into VFW Post 5061 since it established a fund to help Lee. Among them was a check for $100 from an incarcerated Vietnam vet who read about Lee's plight and asked his attorney to send the money to the VFW.

"I actually cried when I read the letters from all these people," said Lee, speaking through his artificial voice box. He said he's received about $1,000 from the VFW fund so far.

Collins and Hudson continue to help Lee search for housing, pay his debts and get settled so he can begin to take care of his serious health problems.

Price said disabled veterans need people like Collins and Hudson or experts from the DAV if they hope to have any chance of navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth to get their benefits. "They can't do it on their own," he said.

"My advice to vets is to see the DAV or somebody for help. Don't give up. The wheels of the VA turn slow."

Sometimes devastatingly so.

Until Collins and Hudson took up his cause, Lee said he was depressed and on the brink of giving up. Now he's a changed man.

"I'm so thankful to all these people who have helped us out - Mike and Jim and all the people who made donations. I love you all," he said. "I never expected this thing to snowball like this."

Now, said Butler, "we want to pay it forward."

"Yes," said Lee, "anything I can do to help anybody, boy, I'm right there."

Diane Carman's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Reach her at 303-954-1489 or