On Wednesday, November 24, ABC's
newsmagazine 20/20 broadcast a story
whose premise was that veterans lie in order to receive benefits for
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). VA Under Secretary for Benefits Joe
Thompson and Dr. Laurent Lehmann, the associate chief of psychiatry and PTSD
programs, were interviewed for the story.
The story had a definite slant, and the
interviewer, Jay Schadler, had a definite point of view. During an interview of
more than an hour -- taped in March in Mr. Thompson's office -- Schadler asked
over and over about the appearance that veterans are on a VA "gravy
train." The implication is that a number of veterans have discovered ways
to cheat the system and fraudulently receive benefits for PTSD, up to
"$3,000 per month tax free" (his words).
To be fair, 20/20
acknowledged that PTSD is real, and that thousands of veterans are receiving
benefits legitimately. But Schadler insisted on what he called the "common
sense" approach that far too many veterans are receiving benefits in error.
He even went on to question why Vietnam veterans are still coming to VA for PTSD
claims 25 years after the war.
Throughout the interview, Mr. Thompson and
Dr. Lehmann tried to educate Schadler about the claims process, and about how
PTSD affects veterans, but Schadler stuck to his premise that this was an
enormous rip-off. He even interviewed a VA claims representative who indicated
that he had personal knowledge of hundreds of claims that had been allowed
PTSD is a medical condition. We know that
Dr. Lehmann was interviewed, and we know he gave compelling information about
the nature of PTSD and other mental health issues VA deals with. Nothing he said
made it to broadcast.
managed in this shoddy piece to undo years of hard work by VA and by veterans'
advocates to recognize PTSD and to encourage veterans to come to VA for help.
With this one story, ABC may have re-stigmatized veterans, and scared them away
from the help they need. That is tragic, and the network's news division should
Dr. Lehmann patiently explained the
diagnosis and treatment of these veterans to the interviewer, but to no avail.
Mr. Thompson explained that the process of
reviewing claims for service- connected disability does not encourage a
situation in which lying is rewarded. He was ignored.
Near the end of the interview, Mr. Thompson
summed up his concern. He said that as a Vietnam veteran he had seen a number of
negative labels unfairly assigned to Vietnam veterans. "Please don't add
'charlatan' and 'fraud' to the list," he said. Unfortunately, that plea
never made it on the air.
The resulting story showed what can happen
when a producer and a reporter are closed-minded and care only about how a
broadcast can be made to fit their pre-conceived notions.
VA assures all veterans, their families and
their advocates that its commitment to the treatment and compensation for PTSD
is ongoing. We encourage all veterans who need help to come to VA. We will
continue to process all claims for disability in accordance with the law, while
showing the measure of concern and compassion the American people expect to be
afforded the country's defenders.
DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
SECRETARY FOR PUBLIC AND INTERGOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS
December 1, 1999
November 24 story about how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)
grants disability compensation to veterans with post-traumatic stress
disorder (PTSD) will likely have a significant impact, just not the one
months your producer and Jay Schadler have been looking for some facts
to back up the suspicion that the stories in the book Stolen Valor are
the norm and not the exception. The fact that they failed miserably
matters is that with one thoughtless piece of "journalism,"
ABC has run the risk of re-stigmatizing vulnerable veterans with a
chronic and debilitating psychological problem. For 30 years veterans'
advocates have been pressing the government to look into the
psychological condition that has come to be known as
20 years (since the diagnosis was officially recognized by mental health
experts), VA has been providing treatment for PTSD and pays a range of
compensation to veterans who suffer from the condition. Only recently,
after years of outreach by the veterans' community and VA have an
increasing number of veterans come to VA to seek help for the illness.
might have undone that work with one 16-minute segment.
we can see no evidence that Mr. Schadler tried to get even ballpark
numbers of "fraudulent" claims from his only other VA source.
He didn't ask why that person did not report his suspicions that
"hundreds" of claims are being rewarded fraudulently. At one
point in the un-aired portion of the interview Schadler said that there
was pressure to approve claims. Of course, he offered no corroboration
or support for this foolish notion.
thought you might like to know the truth.
are 25 million veterans in the U.S. About 118,000 of them receive
disability payments for PTSD from VA. Twenty-four percent of those
veterans are rated as 100-percent disabled.
granting of compensation for PTSD is more complicated than your 20/20
crew was willing to accept.
a veteran needs a diagnosis of PTSD. Our doctors don't look at what the
veteran thinks caused the PTSD. They subject the veteran to tests,
interviews and evaluations. Once that is done, VA's benefits staff
examines the veteran's service record for any evidence that he or she
might have been exposed to a stressor during military service.
Additionally, there are factors that we are required to consider as
situations that presume that PTSD exists. In other words, if a veteran
has a Purple Heart decoration, a Combat Infantry Badge, a Silver Star or
any other "valor" medal, or was held as a prisoner of war, the
condition is presumed to be connected to service in the military.
veteran's story is not considered to be proof of anything. We look at
military records and apply the facts in accordance with the law. It's a
very fair process, and it works.
clear to us that Mr. Schadler had a point of view and spent months
trying unsuccessfully to prove it. That is unfortunate. It is also clear
that he spent a good deal of time bullying a vulnerable Vietnam veteran
for no good reason. That is inexcusable.
the real story is that Stolen Valor pointed out ABC's lack of
thoroughness in one of its earlier features. If that's the case, Mr.
Schadler should have just apologized for airing a lie, and gone about
his business on legitimate stories.
do not know how many veterans will fade back into America's fabric and
suffer silently as a result of this dreadful piece of work. We'll do our
best to let veterans, their families and their advocates know that we
will not let unsubstantiated charges affect how we do our business.
realize that any commercial television program depends on excitement and
controversy to attract viewers. It is too bad that ABC chose innuendo
over fact, and in doing so did a grave disservice to the veterans and
families who depend on VA for help.