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Veteran helps others file disability claims

Recently, an Iraq war veteran approached Richard E. Fox, a retired Army non-commissioned officer, looking for help filing a claim to the Veterans Administration. He was experiencing punishing post-traumatic stress, urgently in need of mental health care.

While on a patrol in Iraq, the veteran was involved in a firefight that left his company commander dead. The veteran, whose name Fox did not disclose, watched over the slain officer in the aftermath.

“He had his dead commander in his truck for two days before anyone would pick him up,” Fox said.

Fox, a commanding 6 feet 4 inches tall, is just the man you would want to meet if you needed something done. He wears a collared shirt with “TOP” monogrammed on the breast pocket. Fox served 26 years in the Army’s military police, reaching the rank of first sergeant, or “top sergeant” in Army parlance.

Now 70 years old, Fox works three days a week for the Disabled American Veterans chapter at the Warner Robins American Legion post. His job is to help local veterans file claims.

To properly file a disability claim through the Veterans Administration, the application must be flawless. Name and Social Security number must be posted on every page. Any inconsistency or unanswered question results in the claim being returned to the applicant.

Fox makes sure this doesn’t happen. He looks through every claim that reaches his desk, making sure there are no deficiencies in the application that could give the VA a chance to reject it. Fox earns no pay for his work.

Veterans from the Korean, Vietnam and current wars walk through his office door every day he’s there. They come from as far as an hour’s drive away to see him.

“Why are they driving this far just to see me?” Fox asked, rhetorically. “There’s nobody else helping them.”

In August, Fox left the Disabled American Veterans state headquarters in Macon and set up an office in Warner Robins.

“They didn’t want me to do claims,” Fox said of officials at the Macon office. “I was given a direct order to stop doing it, and I kept on going.”

Freddie Swint, the commander of the Macon Disabled American Veterans office, said Fox’s role was to do administrative work.

Fox was “not hired to do claims,” he said.

Whatever reason Fox left the Macon office, the claims he files are adding to the Veterans Administration’s backlog. The VA has accumulated nearly 1 million unanswered claims, according to multiple published reports.

“The VA claims it’s not a backlog; it’s a ‘workload,’ ” said Larry Scott, founder and editor of VAwatchdog.org, a Web site that specializes in precisely what its name implies. “Whatever you want to call it, it’s growing.”

As of June, more than 3 million veterans were receiving disability compensation from the Veterans Administration, according to VA figures. For every three veterans who receive their disability compensation, one veteran waits.

“You have some veterans who have been waiting six or seven years on their claims,” Fox said.

The Veterans Administration insists it is responding to the backlog.

“We are hiring more claims processors through the country,” said Jan Northstar, spokeswoman for the Veterans Administration’s Atlanta office. The VA has hired 4,200 additional claims processors since 2007, according to the agency’s internal figures.

An effort to input the claims into a digital database also could help cut into the backlog, Northstar said.

Speaking in August at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Phoenix, President Obama pledged to reduce the backlog by increasing the VA’s budget and digitizing veterans’ health records.

“I know you’ve heard this for years, but the leadership and resources we’re providing this time means that we’re going to be able to do it,” Obama said.

To contact writer Thomas L. Day, call 744-4489.

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