Thinking about filing a disability claim with the Veterans Affairs department? You better make sure you’re claim is legit, unless you’re prepared to handle the wrath of Rep. Tammy Duckworth.
After receiving the tongue-lashing of a lifetime from Duckworth, IRS contractor Braulio Castillo, probably wishes he had thought twice before seeking special status for his IT company, Strong Castle, Inc., as a service-disabled, veteran-owned small business (SDVOSB).
Even though Castillo never entered active duty, the fact that he sustained an injury (while playing football) at a military prep school, The United States Military Academy Preparatory School (USMAPS), makes him entitled to be “a veteran due to the service-connected disability,” as stipulated by the Veterans Benefits Administration itself. His injury qualifies him for a 30 percent disability rating, meaning that he is 30 percent disabled.
Saying that he had “significant pain” in his left foot, Castillo filed a disability claim with the Veterans Affairs department shortly before starting his company in 2012. Six months later, he had $500 million worth in contracts – that 30 percent disability rating meant Castillo’s company received preferential treatment in bidding competitions. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigators raised questions, but the IRS responded that it would be “disruptive“ to cancel Castillo’s contract worth $260 million.
Think something about that doesn’t sound right? Representative Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois and a double amputee after her helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq in 2004, definitely did not think so and told Castillo that in no uncertain terms at a hearing about on June 26. As she said in a speech that you must watch if you have not already:
“Does your foot hurt? My feet hurt too. In fact, the balls of my feet burn continuously, and I feel like there’s a nail being hammered into my heel right now. So I can understand pain and suffering, and how service connection can actually cause long-term, unremitting, unyielding, unstoppable pain.
“So I’m sorry that twisting your ankle in high school has now come back to hurt you in such a painful, if also opportune, way for you to gain this status for your business as you were trying to compete for contracts.”
After reading from a letter Castillo had written to a government official about how the pains from his high-school football injury were “crosses that I bear in my service to our great country,” Duckworth said:
“I’m so glad that you would be willing to play football in prep school again to protect this great country. Shame on you, Mr. Castillo. Shame on you. You may not have broken any laws… But you certainly broke the trust of this great nation. You broke the trust of veterans.”
Duckworth then pointed on what is a real shame: the fact that veterans of the Iran and Afghanistan wars, which have lasted longer than World War I, have to wait a minimum of 237 days (nearly nine months) to receive an initial disability rating. As Pacific Standard points out, the Veteran Administration’s system for assigning disability ratings is “pretty much a disaster.”
Back in 1988, the federal General Accounting Office (GAO) discovered that the last time the disability assessment system was updated was back in 1945 (before, that is, Agent Orange). In particular, they found that VA, military, and private physicians were using outdated terminology, that impairments were “poorly defined,” and that “common medical conditions [were] missing from the schedule.” They also found that the physicians were still using diagnostic codes that ”did not distinguish between degrees of severity and did not list all medical conditions identified in medical examination reports.”
As of last November, when the GAO took a routine examination of an ongoing problem, an analysis found that the “VA hasn’t yet figured out how it defines “disability” in terms of a person’s ability to earn a living.”
Under the current system, Rep. Duckworth’s injured right arm — which, she says, was “essentially blown off” and which she cannot feel — qualifies her for a disability rating of 20 percent, less than what Castillo received for his long-ago injured foot.
Disability fraud such as Castillo stands to be accused of is a true affront to those who, like Rep. Duckworth and millions of others, actually have disabilities that can make their daily activities highly difficult, that can affect their lives in every way from careers to relationships and that still carry public shame and stigma.
With over 2.4 million people having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, suffering from post-traumatic stress and living with missing limbs and brain injuries, the necessity of updating and improving the disability assessment system is greater than ever. As Rep. Duckworth put it simply last week, “Twisting your ankle in prep school is not defending or serving this nation, Mr. Castillo.” Nor is taking advantage of benefits meant for those who have done just that and suffered severe, life-changing injuries.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons