Ringing ears remind Texas resident Roger L. Perales of the war that’s still within him.
Sixteen months in Vietnam as an infantryman and helicopter door gunner with the 101st Airborne Division left other bruises, as well. Doctors diagnosed the 67-year-old San Antonio native with post-traumatic stress disorder. He has diabetes and hypertension, deemed to be service-connected.
Perales also now has a favorable new ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims that offers him a fresh shot at boosting his benefits. Years in the making, this latest plot twist further shakes up an appeal that Perales says he hadn’t originally even planned to pursue.
“I had my doubts,” Perales said in a telephone interview, “then I thought, I’m not going to do this for myself; this is for those who didn’t make it back.”
In a March 21 ruling, Judge William S. Greenberg ordered the Board of Veterans Appeals to reconsider its earlier denial of the bid by Perales for hearing-related benefits. In particular, the appeals board must now examine whether the collective impact of all of his service-connected disabilities create greater functional impairment than each individual disability.
An Obama administration appointee and former brigadier general in the U.S. Army Reserves, Greenberg specifically urged speedy action on behalf of Perales though he did not dictate the final Board of Veterans Appeals’ outcome.
“Many unfortunate and meritorious (veterans) whom Congress have justly thought proper objects of immediate relief, may suffer great distress, even by a short delay, and may be utterly ruined, by a long one,” Greenberg wrote in his brief opinion, quoting from an earlier case.
The long-ago war was a noisy business, for Perales and others.
I get a bad ringing in my ears. It comes and goes, and when it does starts it’s very annoying.
Vietnam War veteran Roger L. Perales.
Entering Army active duty in September 1969, Perales landed in Vietnam in 1970. Gunfire, claymore mine explosions and the beat of helicopters assaulted his ears. In early 1971, a helicopter he was riding in as part of a major operation called Dewey Canyon II was shot down and crash landed. Perales took it all as it came, even signing up for an extended tour.
“At the time, you didn’t really think about your medical records,” Perales said.
When honorably discharged from active duty in April 1972, Spc. 4 Perales held the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Bronze Star and the seeds of health problems that would drive him to what is now called the Department of Veterans Affairs. He now wears hearing aids, and reports having trouble hearing or understanding people amid background noise.
Tests began identifying the hearing loss but it was not sufficient, according to the VA in 2010, to merit the compensation that Perales sought. It was, in the words of the VA, “zero percent disabling.”
Like tens of thousands of other veterans every year, Perales eventually went to the Board of Veterans Appeals. In fiscal 2016, the board disposed of 52,009 appeals. Time can drag there but eventually, in January 2015, the board upheld the VA’s rejection of Perales’s claim.
The degree of hearing loss, the board reasoned, failed to meet the strict criteria set out in what the VA calls its “Rating Schedule.”
Perales fought on, arguing that his combination of health issues deserved consideration for what’s called an “extraschedular rating.” In his March 21 decision, Greenberg concluded that Perales “reasonably raises the possibility of a combined impact” and that the Board of Veterans Appeals incorrectly “provided no explanation” for its rejection of the idea.
“The court’s decision in Mr. Perales’s case recognizes a common problem seen in a majority of BVA decisions, in that there are no manageable standards for the assignment of an extraschedular rating,” said Rhode Island-based attorney Robert V. Chisholm, who has represented Perales.
Perales, now retired after 30 years of working for a San Antonio school district, called the decision “great” and noted he has been waiting for years. Still, even after all this time, some things remain unclear or are, at least, quite complicated, as Perales underscored when asked why he volunteered to serve additional time in Vietnam.
“That,” Perales said with a laugh, “is a good question.”