It was hard to believe the World War II veteran could be so well-adjusted considering his circumstances.
For over three years, the former sailor was a captive of Imperial Japan, known for its harsh treatment of American prisoners-of-war.
The code of Bushido looked down on those who surrendered or were captured as men undeserving of respect. The result was often starvation, forced labor, neglect, abuse and outright murder.
Neal Delisanti met with the man in his role as Cumberland County director of veterans’ affairs. A retired Army officer and Vietnam War veteran, part of his job is to help veterans fill out claims for service-connected post-traumatic stress disorder.
The typical claim undergoes a two-step review process to determine whether a diagnosis of PTSD is appropriate and then to weigh the severity of the condition.
The level of severity is determined as a percentage of a monthly stipend the veteran is entitled to for as long as he or she lives.
The very fact the World War II veteran was a prisoner of Japan left little doubt he endured some form of service-connected trauma during his captivity.
Yet the man exhibited no symptoms that would cause him to be less productive or to have any difficulty interfacing with other people, Delisanti said. “That was surprising to me given what he had gone through.
“He came out of the war, stayed in the Navy, retired from the Navy in the early 1960s,” Delisanti said. “He got married, raised a family, retired from the Navy depot in Mechanicsburg. He lived a wholesome life and had no problems at all.”
The secret of his success was to put the war behind him. “I got on with my life,” he told Delisanti. “My wife and I enjoyed a nice life together.”
It took some prodding by Delisanti to convince the veteran to file a claim but, in the end, the reviewer found no evidence to support a percentage.
On a different occasion, an Iraqi war veteran came into his office one day to fill out a claim for disability. The man said he suffered from PTSD and felt he was entitled to the benefit.
When pressed for details, the recent veteran told Delisanti he was in a convoy that had arrived at a post in the war zone. The man went into a bunker where he used a computer to email people back home.
Suddenly insurgents fired mortar rounds into the compound causing some explosions but no casualties. The man who filed the claim came out of this experience scared but unhurt. “The claim was denied,” Delisanti said. “They saw no significant stressors that cause the PTSD.”
Money a motivator
While there are many veterans deserving of a service-connected disability benefit, there are a vast number who seek it purely for monetary gain, Delisanti said. “It almost denigrates the service of others, let alone their own service.
“We have people coming in 20 to 30 plus years after separation from the service saying ‘I have PTSD,’” Delisanti said. “You wonder is this because they are now retiring and their income from employment is reduced.”
Part of his job as director is to ask questions of veterans to gauge their level of need and their eligibility for benefits. “Everybody is a taxpayer,” Delisanti said. “Somebody is paying for this kind. If it is not legitimate, the veteran should not be provided that particular benefit.”
He asks each veteran whether the suspected PTSD has caused problems in their relationship with their spouse, children or pre-service friendships. Delisanti also asks whether the veteran has sought any counseling for the condition.
In reviewing their discharge documents, he looks for signs of possible service-connected stressors. For example, the presence of a combat infantry badge and service ribbon indicates exposure to battle while a valor device attached to a medal means action above and beyond the call of duty.
Even when a determination is made, there are some veterans who come back saying they feel as though they deserve a higher percentage than what was fixed by the claims reviewer.
The system includes a gradient that goes from 50 to 70 percent disability. To be eligible for the higher threshold, the Veterans Administration may ask the veteran to remove all guns from a household to curb the risk of them acting upon any suicidal or homicidal thoughts tied to their PTSD diagnosis.
As director, Delisanti is obligated to inform the veterans of this possible requirement. There have been many cases where the veteran simply walks away from their request for a higher percentage.
Not just combat
“It says to me that maybe the problem is not as bad as they made it out to be,” Delisanti said. He added not every claim for service-connected PTSD is tied to combat.
He cited a case from years ago where a female veteran came into his office to ask for help. She enlisted in the military during the early 1970s and was trained in the medical service.
During a gathering, she was raped by a senior noncommissioned officer and warned by him not to report the incident. Being of lower rank, she complied with his threat only to discover she was pregnant.
She was given an administrative discharge and gave up her baby for adoption. The woman isolated herself and lost contact with her family. Delisanti helped her to file a claim that was denied due to a lack of supporting evidence.
He went on to help her in the appeal process, which resulted in a positive finding after the woman, on the advice of Delisanti, persuaded her mother to write a statement attesting to her change in personality from before enlistment to after discharge. That was enough to make a difference.
While there are some veterans who try to take advantage of the system, there are others who shortchange their contributions and do not pursue the benefits they deserve, Delisanti said.
He cited, as an example, the Vietnam War era during which 9.5 million served but only 2 million were deployed to Southeast Asia.
“You didn’t go to Canada,” Delisanti said. “You didn’t avoid your service. You were drafted or enlisted. You still served your country.”