- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2007

Lavelle, Paul and Tyler: Two of them muscled through the worst of the Vietnam War almost four decades ago, and the third was burned and broken after a suicide bomber blew apart his truck on the back roads of Iraq in 2004.

Now the veterans are fighting a new battle, fiercely determined to draw the nation’s attention to the quagmire of veterans’ benefits and health care.

The system is a confusing mess, they say, criticizing both the Department of Veterans Affairs and the independent court system that hears appeals from veterans who are denied what is due to them.

“You do it their way, and that’s no way,” said Lavelle Tullis, an Army veteran from Dry Prong, La.

He saw action in Cambodia during the Vietnam War before returning home with a skin disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and little hope of navigating the complexities of the health care system.

“I had buddies who just gave up on getting what was owed them. Committed suicide,” Mr. Tullis said. “The VA is killing people because they’re not helping people, you know what I’m saying?”

Tyler Ziegel nodded in agreement.

“I’m looking at the whole rest of my life now. And I’m just hoping for a decent time of it. Is that too much to ask?” he said.

During his second tour in Iraq, the Marine reservist lost his left hand and half of his right, the sight in one eye, his ears and much of his face during an attack that took place while he was on patrol in Anbar province almost three years ago.

A tattoo on his leg reads “Chicks dig scars.” One chick, in particular. After 50 surgeries and hours of rehabilitation, Mr. Ziegel last year married his fiancee, Renee, and now hopes to right his life once and for all.

“I was hospitalized for 19 months, then medically retired from the military. But I had no contact from the VA after that and was on 75 percent of my base pay. They wanted to see if I’d take the least amount and just go ‘bye-bye.’ The local VA didn’t know about proper paperwork. I was told I’d have to wait 16 months for care,” Mr. Ziegel said.

“And that’s a disgrace. That’s when we made noise,” said Paul Labbe, an Army veteran who founded the Louisiana Veterans Advocacy Group five years ago.

He spent a decade seeking care for a head injury he suffered during the Vietnam War in 1969.

“Vets wrongfully denied benefits? It’s been going on since World War II,” Mr. Labbe said. “But you have to act on it. This organization is now helping 65 vets around the country file their paperwork. We’re writing up their histories, getting service and medical records, statements from their families.”

The trio will hold a press conference today outside the building they consider the epicenter of veterans’ woes — the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The court operates independently of the VA and reviews the cases of veterans who are denied health care, pensions and educational benefits for myriad reasons.

Last year, 3,729 cases were filed for consideration before the seven judges, who ultimately decide if the veterans’ disabilities, conditions or circumstances are service-related.

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