Politics & Government

After fighting in Vietnam, he struggles with PTSD, the VA – and a terminal diagnosis

Lionel Sosa looks out the back window of his home in Gulfport, Miss., Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016. Sosa is a 78-year-old veteran, diagnosed with terminal cancer, who has been fighting for PTSD benefits.
Lionel Sosa looks out the back window of his home in Gulfport, Miss., Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016. Sosa is a 78-year-old veteran, diagnosed with terminal cancer, who has been fighting for PTSD benefits. ttisbell@sunherald.com

Violent memories ambushed Lionel Sosa.

The Gulfport, Mississippi, resident couldn’t escape them. Shards of what happened in South Vietnam in 1966 burst inside the 78-year-old Army veteran, shredding his peace of mind, he says.

For years, though, Department of Veterans Affairs examiners repeatedly denied Sosa’s claim of suffering from service-connected post-traumatic stress disorder. Inadequate evidence, one examiner said. Too vague, said another. Unsupported by “objective test results,” ruled a third.

Now, a specialized federal court for veterans has given Sosa another fighting chance to obtain the diagnosis he’s been seeking. If he succeeds this time, his VA benefits will increase, as will, perhaps, this terminally ill man’s belief in the system that so far has frustrated him.

“I am sorely disappointed in the VA,” Sosa said in a telephone interview. “They didn’t do nothing for me.”

Time, for Sosa, is getting short.

The retired commercial artist has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He says doctors have given him just several months to live.

At one point, thinking about a potential increase in VA benefits, he imagined taking a vacation with his wife, Sheryl. Now, having given up morphine because of the hallucinations, he ranks his pain at 8 on a 10-scale, and future planning is stripped to the bone.

“My main concern: not to leave my wife in (bad) financial circumstances,” Sosa said.

Sosa started seeking post-traumatic-stress disability compensation benefits more than a dozen years ago, launching a prolonged process that has since carried him through myriad medical exams, administrative hearings and court proceedings.

A U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims judge, in a Nov. 4 decision, sided with Sosa and ordered yet another review. This time, Judge Mary J. Schoelen ordered, officials must consider all the “additional evidence and argument” Sosa submits. The ruling gives Sosa a definite advantage, though it does not order a specific outcome.

Herself a former staff attorney with Vietnam Veterans of America, Schoelen made clear her own impatience with the ponderous bureaucracy that goes beyond the Board of Veterans Appeals.

“The court notes that (Sosa’s) claim has been pending since 2004 and has been remanded by the board three times for additional development,” Schoelen wrote, adding pointedly that she “regrets that this claim must be remanded to the board but expects that the secretary (of veterans affairs) will handle this claim in an expeditious manner.”

Until now, Sosa and his Rhode Island-based attorney, Robert V. Chisholm, have faced seemingly endless hurdles.

“I submitted all the information they asked for,” Sosa said. “They just kept saying, ‘Submit more paperwork. Submit more paperwork.’ ”

It’s manifestly a fallible process. Even the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, while siding with Sosa, flubbed the spelling of his first name in the Nov. 4 decision: He was called “Lional.”

For their part, the Board of Veterans Appeals and the larger Department of Veterans Affairs say they’re handling a massive workload as best they can. The board issued a then-record 55,713 decisions in fiscal 2015, according to its most recent annual report.

The VA’s backlog of pension and disability claims that have been awaiting action for more than 125 days stood at 85,721 as of last week, an uncomfortable number that’s nonetheless a significant improvement from several years ago.

All the while, VA officials struggle to ensure benefits go only to those who deserve them. Fraudulent disability claims are not unheard-of.

Sosa first enlisted in the Army in 1956. Starting in 1966, he served in Vietnam for 13 months as an enlisted man with the 27th Engineer Battalion. When he left the service, which included additional time in the National Guard, he held the rank of E-6, or staff sergeant.

In his subsequent claims for PTSD-related benefits, Sosa recounted events that included a Dec. 21, 1966, ambush of a resupply convoy in which several men were wounded and a sergeant was killed. He also recalled seeing a pregnant Vietnamese woman, dead, her fetus protruding from a stomach wound.

Sosa’s initial VA examiner characterized him in 2004 as exhibiting classic symptoms that included intrusive memories, nightmares and feelings of estrangement from others. The father of four sons easily became irritable. He always sat with his back to the wall. Noises startled him. He kept his wife at bay.

Nonetheless, a regional VA office denied Sosa’s claim in November 2004. There then ensued a series of follow-up reviews and appeals, with one reviewer explaining a rejection because Sosa “had not described what he was doing during the ambush, what he witnessed or how he reacted,” Schoelen recounted.

“Seeing the aftermath of war (such as dead/burned/decapitated bodies, wounded and other atrocities of war) while on convoys, etc., regardless of how unpleasant or horrific they may be, is not sufficient to meet criteria A1 for the clinical diagnosis of PTSD,” another examiner wrote in 2013, citing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Judge Schoelen, in her 12-page ruling, called that assessment inadequate, in part because it failed to properly consider Sosa’s own account of what he’d experienced. Her decision bounces Sosa’s application back to the Board of Veterans Appeals, where a new review will have to race against Sosa’s decline.

“I did the very best I could for my country,” Sosa said.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10