We often hear the cliché, “the fog of war”—a simplified expression used to describe the chaos and confusion so often found in a combat zone. It’s something all combat Veterans understand. Whether you’re running toward a hardened shelter during a mortar attack or gripping the wheel as your truck races through an area known for ambushes, combat is not a place where troops often stop to document the details. Those details may be forever burned into our minds, but we often don’t come away with hard copy proof of what occurred.
Unfortunately, for years now, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has required Veterans filing disability claims for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to do just that—to document in detail what caused them to become symptomatic. We call it a “stressor.” Our rules have been even more stringent for Veterans who didn’t serve in a combat branch of the military—like the infantry, artillery, or armor. Essentially, if a former military intelligence soldier is continually late for work because he can’t sleep at night, we ask him to provide photos or a written radio log proving he was rocketed when he says he was. If he can’t, we might deny the claim. If a former medic shows signs of depression and blames it on having watched people bleed to death, we ask her to get a written statement from her former boss. Again, if she can’t, we may not award her benefits. But starting today, we’re making this process simpler and easier for all Veterans.
The previous arrangement is neither fair, nor sustainable. This is especially true in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where there are no static front lines and the combat zone is everywhere. In reality, life in a combat zone is both complex and it affects each of us differently—as demonstrated by a number of scientific studies. Some who’ve been in the most terrible fighting can emerge relatively unscathed. Other non-combat troops, whose wartime experience came only in the form of a blaring air raid siren, can live for decades haunted by the sound and the threat it represented. The base where I was stationed was mortared—almost on a daily basis—enough that it gained the nickname “Mortaritaville.” My physical wounds make my combat experience clear, yet other troops on my base must prove they were at an actual explosion from one of those daily attacks. At VA, we’re now moving to treat all Veterans equally when it comes to filing a disability claim for PTSD.
From this point forward, VA will not require corroboration of a PTSD stressor related to fear of hostile military or terrorist activity if a VA psychiatrist or psychologist confirms that the stressful experience recalled by a Veteran adequately supports a diagnosis of PTSD and the Veteran's symptoms are related to the claimed stressor. This means that if a Veteran was in a certain place at a certain time—and they present to us with diagnosable symptoms, then we’ll presume those symptoms were caused by their experience in combat.
By doing so, for the first time, we won’t be assuming that a truck driver is any less likely to have PTSD than an infantryman. And by giving this benefit of the doubt, we will relieve pressure on thousands of Veterans—making their trek for the benefits they deserve much easier. Instead of acting as an inadvertent obstacle, we will now aim to lift some of the heavy fog under which so many of our Veterans have lived—both in combat and after returning home. It’s something I’m proud to be a part of because I, like so many millions of Americans, believe this is the least we can do to show our gratitude for the sacrifices they have made.
Tammy Duckworth is the Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs.