WASHINGTON D.C. – The Veterans Board of Appeals heard oral arguments Wednesday by a disabled vet who charged that the Fort Harrison VA near Helena is “organizationally incompetent.”
Charles Gatlin, a 38-year-old graduate student at the University of Montana , is a Ranger-certified Army captain retired on a disability. After being awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, Gatlin was retired from active duty with a 70 percent disability rating for traumatic brain injury (TBI) suffered in Iraq by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED).
But the VA at Fort Harrison ignored three batteries of neuropsychological testing by the DoD and dropped Gatlin’s 70 percent TBI disability to 10 percent and then added another 30 percent for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“If you feel your claim has been mischaracterized, we want to give you the opportunity to speak to that issue,” explained Veterans Law Judge Kalpana Parakkal. She explained the appeals board would rule later in the case, but could not predict when that would happen.
Gatlin’s wife, Ariana Del Negro, said her husband is one of what she called “the miserable minority,” the 10 to 15 percent of all TBI victims whose brains were so damaged that they suffered symptoms that would never go away.
Del Negro submitted her previous testimony before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs that her husband was standing less than 20 yards away from a very large VBIED on Sept. 28, 2006, when it was detonated, causing Gatlin to suffer a closed-head TBI.
“He was exposed to three concussive forces: first, the explosion; then the engine block from the vehicle which struck him in the back of the head as he was thrown into the air; and finally when he hit his head again after falling to the ground on his back, where he remained unconscious for at least 10 minutes,” she testified.
When Army neurologists found that evidence of cognitive impairments and loss of fine motor skills remained three years after the explosion, Gatlin received a disability retirement.
“When the VA examiners were asked if more neuropsychological testing was required, they said no because the symptoms had stabilized,” Del Negro told the veterans law judge. “But then they administered screening test to him anyway and dropped his TBI disability rating from 70 to 10 percent.”
Del Negro also told the judge that it was inappropriate for the VA to compensate for the TBI disability rating drop by adding another 30 percent for PTSD because the two disorders are different and VA policies require that each be evaluated independently of each other.
“PTSD is a separate rating and TBI is a separate rating,” she explained. “As much as I think he should have a higher PTSD rating, if they’ll fix the TBI rating we’ll be pleased.”
Del Negro said her husband suffered survivor guilt after his accident as the result of a helicopter accident that killed 10 of the men under his command. Gatlin accompanied the body of one of his men back to the his family for burial, she said.
A second part of her argument was that the psychologist administering a screening test called RBANS at Fort Harrison was unqualified and untrained to give the test or interpret their results.
“In addition, the RBANS test is not recognized by the VA because it’s not a sufficiently precise test,” Del Negro said. “Because my husband is a high-functioning individual, you have to have specific tests to measure impairment in someone like him.”
“I’ve been through a lot of VA testing, and I’m tired of them,” Gatlin said. “I keep being administered tests by people who are not qualified to administer them. For me to have to go back and re-invent the wheel just is unacceptable. It’s like going to a foot doctor for an eye injury.”
“It was us dancing for them, rather than them dancing with us,” agreed Del Negro. “If you remand us back (for further testing at Fort Harrison ), we’ll be in this vicious circle forever.
“If the examiners are going to say that no further testing is necessary because his impairments have stabilized, then honor those test results. I argue that the VA did not honor its own protocol.”
Del Negro said her husband can’t button his shirts or tie his shoes or hold things without dropping them. While Gatlin has learned to compensate for his cognitive impairments, he still has lost a lot of his ability to read things and remember them, she said.
“It takes me longer to formulate a response,” Gatlin told the veterans law judge. “I’m forced to keep up, and it makes me angry at times. When I first got back, people thought I was drunk a lot. There’s a lot of ignorance. It’s like having a special needs child—you never understand what it’s like until you have one.
“Finally there comes a realization that I’m never going to improve. There’s frustration in that as well, but I have to accept it as a reality.”
Gatlin said one of the worst frustrations is that he has been forced to fight the VA over just compensation for his combat injuries.
“One thing that has been demonstrated over and over again is the level of organizational incompetence within the Fort Harrison VA,” he charged.
“And a lot of families are getting hurt by it,” concluded his wife.