GOLD BAR, Snohomish County — When Rob Arthur was diagnosed with brain cancer back in January, the gaunt, gray-haired Vietnam veteran decided to wed his longtime girlfriend, Debbie Shafer, in a hospital room.
The marriage has been a source of comfort for this couple as they face the challenges of an unforgiving disease, deemed terminal, in a trailer home set by the steep flanks of the North Cascade mountains.
It also has been a big source of stress in their dealings with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Last summer, the VA ruled that Arthur — his earnings boosted by his wife’s wages as a nurse’s aide — was no longer eligible for an income-based pension and would have to repay $6,324 in checks mailed out during the more than six months that the department took to make this decision.
“They are mental abusers right now, is the way I look at it,” Shafer said. “And that’s not a kind way to look at your government. We got knocked down, and now they are stomping on us. We don’t have the money to pay them.”
These overpayments are more fallout from the troubled VA’s inability to keep up with a massive caseload of veterans who turn to the department for benefits. These delays sometimes can create major financial problems for the veterans by sticking them with unexpected bills to repay checks they should not have received.
“It can be an incredible hardship,” said Amy Fairweather, a policy director at San Francisco-based Swords to Plowshares, a nonprofit veterans service organization. “The onus should be on the VA to take care of these matters and not to go after destitute or low-income veterans to pay back pensions.”
VA officials say their actions are guided by federal law.
No matter how long they take to complete a pension review, the law requires VA officials to make their decision retroactive to the month when the veteran’s financial status first changed.
“Cases like this, it kind of breaks our heart,” said Randal Noller, a VA spokesman. “But we don’t have the wiggle room.”
Service dates to 1964
The 68-year-old Arthur and his wife say they accept the loss of the pension. But they want the VA to drop demands to pay back the pension checks sent out earlier this year.
“We simply cannot afford to survive should we be held responsible for this debt,” Arthur wrote in a letter to the VA. requesting a hardship exemption. “We did not do anything to deceive the Department of Veterans Affairs. We completed any and all documentation required of us in a timely fashion.”
Arthur’s military service dates back to 1964, when he was a 17-year-old Montana youth who faced the draft and opted to join the Navy.
Arthur served as a boiler tender aboard an aging destroyer that cruised off the coast of Vietnam. While at sea, he says, he took a violent tumble when a railing gave way and he fell on a capped-off pipe in the bilge that rammed him in the small of his back.