Early Friday afternoon, New Yorkers were walking on Park Avenue at their usual brisk pace. There was a slight breeze, and the air was cool enough to be refreshing. People were enjoying the day of moderate temperature before the holiday weekend, when the weather forecast was for three days of scorchers. Judging from the jam-packed sidewalk, plenty of people were leaving work early. Tourists were afoot. I heard snippets of passing conversations in Japanese and French.
On the pavement at the northeast corner of 54th Street, a man dressed in combat fatigues was sitting behind a black plastic crate. He was wearing dog tags, and on his shirt—at the right hand side of his chest—were three pins. One designated sergeant’s status; another was a Marine Corps insignia. The third was the Stars and Stripes. He had placed a backpack on top of the rectangular structure, along with an upside down military issue cap that held a few dollar bills and some loose change. Right next to it was what appeared to be a driver’s license.
It wasn’t. When I looked at it more closely, I saw it was his Veterans Identification card.
He had none of the usual messages printed on a piece of cardboard, explaining his situation or requesting help. There was just a simple tableau that people were bypassing at a mile a minute. No one broke their stride. There were no second glances. Nobody showed interest as to why he was on the street.
The former soldier came across as a rock amid a rushing stream. He was anchored to his spot. People flowed past him, but he was not acknowledged. As I observed the scene, I turned to my teenage son and said, “I have to talk to him.”
I went over and said, “Hi, are you a vet?” “Yes,” he replied. “I served in Afghanistan.” Reacting to the fact that I was interested in talking he offered, “The VA is holding up my benefits. I went to see my Congressional representative up on 125th Street to get some help. When the VA found out, they told me that if I complained again my benefits would be ‘a long time coming.’ ” Tears started to fill his eyes. “My brother is over in Afghanistan now,” he added, his voice breaking.
I struggled between wanting to learn more and respecting his space.
“You should get in touch with IAVA—the veteran’s group,” I suggested. “They have an office here in the city. Have you ever seen their ad for returning vets?” I asked him. He looked at me directly and said, “I haven’t seen television in over a year.”
I wrote down the information for him on a scrap of paper he had, using one of the pens he took from a neat row stitched into his backpack. I fished my wallet out of my purse and opened it up, and put some money in his hat. As my son and I started to walk away he called after us, “Have a happy Fourth of July.”
It was an unsettling experience. As we rode home on the bus, I wondered how many others like him were struggling to survive—while waiting to get what was due to them from their country.
When I got home, I contacted the IAVA offices. I knew they were front and center in the fight to help veterans readjust to civilian life. Part of that included how to navigate the claims system. Chrissy Stevens, Communications Director, told me by e-mail, “We have heard a lot of similar stories from our membership and that’s why we are pushing so hard on this issue on Capitol Hill. Vets in New York and across the country are waiting for far too long for benefits.”
Part of the IAVA 2010 Legislative Agenda is devoted to recommendations on how to modernize claims processing. According to IAVA, the current method is antiquated—which accounts for “frequent errors, countless bureaucratic red tape, and a lengthy wait for benefits.” In fact, the VA backlog is approaching one million cases.
While Americans are enjoying picnics, sales, and fireworks, too many of those who have served in our all-volunteer military are fighting a system that is supposed to help them.
I can only speculate on how many other men and women have fallen through the cracks…and where they will be on Independence Day.