Like most military veterans, Wayne Littrell is accustomed to the foot-dragging, the red tape, the hurry-up-and-wait mentality involved in dealing with the government. He's aware of the news reports concerning the scandalous delays and neglect that thousands of vets have endured when seeking medical care and other benefits from the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs.
From time to time, Littrell gets a letter from the VA concerning his own requests for treatment and compensation for a terrible injury he suffered in the line of duty. "We are working on your claim," the letters begin.
The VA's been working on it for the last 69 years.
"I hear from them quite often," says Littrell, who recently celebrated his 95th birthday. "But they still haven't settled that claim. I think they're just waiting me out so they don't have to do anything."
Littrell is quick to point out that the VA hasn't totally denied his claim for benefits, nor has it ignored him. But the matter remains unresolved after seven decades, and he figures it's time to raise some questions about the treatment he's received — and hasn't received — over the years from the sprawling bureaucracy (current annual budget: $150 billion) that's supposed to look out for the nation's soldiers.
In 1945, Littrell was serving as a neuropsychiatric technician specialist, stationed at a hospital at the Naval Base San Diego. While he didn't experience combat himself, he saw the collateral damage; his patients were shell-shocked World War II vets in need of serious psychiatric care. One of the worst was a patient named Harold, who'd been pushed into a foxhole by his twin brother moments before the twin was killed in an explosion. "He caught his brother's head in his arms," Littrell recalls. "The only thing he could talk about was his brother."
It was Littrell's job to play cards with the patient in his bare cell and attempt to get him to talk and open up. But one day Harold, a judo instructor, abruptly went berserk. He attacked Littrell, hitting him several times in the face, breaking his jaw and knocking out six of his teeth. Littrell was hospitalized; upon his discharge in 1946, officials determined that his dental injuries were service-related and qualified him for ongoing treatment but not a disability pension.
Littrell in 1944, when he still had his toothy smile.
After the war, Littrell settled in Denver with his wife Dorothea (the couple's 75th wedding anniversary is later this month). He became chief of security at the University of Denver and stayed at that post for twenty years, from the staid 1950s to the sit-ins of the late 1960s and early 1970s. His home office is decked out with photos and mementos from the many marquee-name visitors who visited the campus, including United Nations Secretary General U Thant, Martin Luther King Jr., Madeline Albright and Bob Hope. President Lyndon Johnson was so impressed with Littrell during his 1964 visit — Littrell had stopped LBJ's motorcade after spotting a kid with a .30-06 rifle, who claimed to be just using the scope to get a better view of the president — that he invited him to his ranch.
Throughout it all, though, Littrell struggled with the ill-fitting partial dentures supplied by the VA to take the place of his missing front teeth. On occasion, the agency referred him to outside dentists, acknowledging that the VA didn't have the expertise to address particular aspects of his injuries in-house. But in more recent years, the VA has refused to make such referrals, and his condition has become progressively worse.
Littrell acknowledges that some people might attribute his periodontal problems to age. But he contends that his inability to wear the partials contributed to infection and decay, prompting the removal of more teeth and increasing discomfort. Recently the pain got so bad that he went to the VA's emergency room, where he was administered shots of Novocaine and given a dental appointment that was nearly a month away. He's scheduled for oral surgery in another few weeks, he says.
And in two weeks he's scheduled for what's known as a "C & P exam" — an evaluation to see if he's entitled to disability compensation and related benefits for his service-related injury. Littrell has applied for such evaluations before, as far back as 1996, and been denied. But this time he's applied with the aid of Dean Casey, a designated patient representative from the American Legion, and is hopeful of better results.
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Casey, the department service officer for the Legion in Colorado, says his office handles claims involving more than 3,000 veterans. Vets often need help negotiating the maze of the VA claims process, he adds, and should deal with VA-accredited reps from organizations such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "They send out a letter periodically saying they're working on your claim, but they may ask for more documents from you," Casey explains. "A lot of times the veterans shoot themselves in the foot by not supplying the necessary information."
Littrell is hoping for some action on his case. "I'd like to see them make some kind of compensation payment," he says. "The doctor tells me they could never put me back like before. They're pulling teeth now. I can't chew anything. It's a real imposition, not to be able to put food in your mouth — except soups."
At 95, Littrell figures he has little to lose by speaking out. "This is the first time in seventy years they want to talk about compensation," he says. "I'll be very interested in what they have to say."