Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Witness Testimony of Alex Lazos, (Veteran), Harriman, NY
My name is Alex Lazos. I am a former Marine Corps combat veteran and attained the rank of Sergeant during my five years as a U.S. Marine. I was part of the initial Operation Iraqi Freedom initiative which became Operation Enduring Freedom and is still going on as we meet here today.
I enlisted in the Marines directly after graduating high school in 1999 and was honorably discharged in August, 2004.
After returning from Iraq, I was experiencing severe mental and emotional disturbance which gradually worsened with each passing month. After I was discharged, my grandfather, John Lazos, who was an Army paratrooper in World War 2 and a Purple Heart recipient encouraged me to seek help from the Veterans Administration. At the time, I wasn’t even aware of what the VA had to offer or that it’s services would be available to me. Nobody told me prior to being discharged or after being discharged. I was just handed my DD-214 and told “thank you, your enlistment is over.”
I was immediately diagnosed with severe combat related post traumatic stress disorder, though the services and treatments at the time put in front of me were vague and incomplete. The initial process of registering with the VA and trying to “navigate” the system was extremely frustrating, especially trying to get to talk to someone face-to-face. It seemed every phone call I made would result in me being given another phone number. When I was finally given appointments, it would end up having nothing to do with what I called about. I would be scheduled for a physical when I had a psychiatric complaint, and the medical provider wouldn’t even know why I was there to see them. This was going on continually. I got bounced from one place and person to the next, meanwhile my symptoms and quality of life worsened and I became more and more depressed and suicidal.
It was not difficult to become disillusioned and downhearted considering it appeared there was no prospect of getting any help. By June, 2005, I decided to leave New York and try to re-build my life, hoping a change of scenery would be the answer. I chose to go back to North Carolina where I had been stationed. It was a terrible decision but at the time I was not in the right state of mind to make any good decisions and it only made things worse. In August, 2005, I went to the North Carolina VA center and filed my initial claim for benefits. I remember being told “it is a very long process and to expect to get denied the first couple times”.
By September of 2005, I was evicted, homeless, severely depressed and attempted suicide. I returned to New York and reentered the VA healthcare system once again seeking help.
From then until September, 2006, I was in and out of inpatient psychiatric wards and drug and alcohol detoxs, amassing legal problems, unable to find or maintain work and my life and condition continued to spiral down until I hit bottom. Once again considering suicide as a viable option and with my life completely out of control, I entered the Montrose VA where I would remain for the next 11 months as a psychiatric inpatient.
In January, 2007, I re-filed my original claim and found out the VA had given me a rating of ZERO percent service-connected disability from my prior claim. I was treated primarily for my post traumatic stress during my stay at Montrose and as the date for my discharge from the Montrose neared, my claim had still not been processed, yet I have been diagnosed with severely disabling PTSD and had been in their system for going on three years.
You can’t imagine the panic that set in, wondering where or how I would live and how I could continue my recovery process. I started writing to all the elected officials and Congressman John Hall’s office got one of my many letters and contacted me. Thanks to his intervention, my claim was expedited and by August, 2007, three years after I had first filed my claim, I started to receive my benefits.
I can’t begin to tell you how the quality of my life has improved. I can live independently and support myself while focusing on my recovery and treatment and I can finally start rebuilding my life that’s been on hold for over three years.
I don’t understand why it had to take so long to get help. I don’t understand how the VA could instantly recognize that I have a seriously disabling condition as a result of my military service yet took three years to process my claim and compensate me for it. My experience with the VA and the claims process has been a battle in and of itself, and having returned home from one war to fight another one with an organization that was put in place with the sole purpose to serve veterans like myself is incomprehensible still to me. I also believe that full and complete funding should be granted to the Veteran’s Administration in support of increasing space and duration of programs, an increase in available services and manpower, and the implementation of long lasting, effective changes to better serve and benefit our ever growing veteran population. The claims process needs to be expedited for everyone, and funds to pay disability and compensation benefits need to be made available.
I see a lot of finger pointing and blame going on in politics today over this war and the results of a decision made in 2003. Well that was four years ago, the wars still going on and assigning blame isn’t going to change a thing. This isn’t a time for blame, it’s a time for change, and unfortunately whereas war can be declared overnight, the results will last a lifetime. And for the servicemen and veteran’s whose lives literally hang in the balance, these issues need to be immediately addressed.
And despite my relief at having my life back, the guilt that I feel that I’ve gotten these benefits while so many of my fellow veterans continue to suffer is only comparable to the survivor’s guilt that I feel for surviving Iraq while so many haven’t.
I would like to reiterate something often lost in the endless shuffle and re-filing of paperwork and political bickering: Generations of Americans have volunteered to make extreme personal sacrifice sometimes at the cost of their own lives to defend and ensure the integrity and future of the United States of America and as veterans, we were asked to pick up a weapon and lay down our lives for our country without question. Shouldn’t our treatment on returning home reflect nothing less? I feel that our troops deserve the same level of loyalty and commitment from the Veterans Administration as we were asked to give when we put on our uniforms and swore an oath to our country.
Thank you and God bless the United States of America and the men and women who protect it.