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Witness Testimony of Roy Saenz, South Bend, IN (Former Member of the Marine Corps Reserves)

Thank you Chairwoman Herseth-Sandlin and Congressman Donnelly for this opportunity to speak with you about my transition experience. My name is Sergeant Roy Saenz. I served in the Marine Corps Reserves for 8 years from August 1997 to August of 2005. While in the reserves I was activated and deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I can only attest to my experiences transitioning back to civilian life as a reservist. 

In January of 2003 I was placed on active duty with Eng. Co. B., 6th ESB, 4th FSSG, South Bend, IN.  Prior to leaving the theater of operations, we went through a serious of debriefings in Kuwait . The debriefing I remember best is the medical brief. We were given a questionnaire asking about any issues we may have. Two things stood out: one, “If we had issues we would be placed on medical hold in Camp Pendleton until they were resolved” and two, “We are not telling you to not to put any issues on the questionnaire, just that you will be a medical hold.”  This meant that we would not be able to return home with our unit. Meanwhile, we were already aware of the plans being made for the reunion back home in South Bend. Friends and family had been glued to the papers following our every move because we had an embedded reporter with us.  So at both ends of the phone lines everyone wanted to be reunited, not stuck in California away from home.

When we arrived at Camp Pendleton, many units were returning so there was a very tight and quick schedule to get us through our briefs.  We again went through a medical brief. This time however, we waited in line and met with a doctor for a quick and very basic evaluation. If we brought anything up, they told us, “You can stay and we will do a full evaluation but you will have to wait until next week.” This meant we would not return home with the unit. My mom and younger brother had already flown in from Arizona to meet the unit in South Bend.  So the incentive to report anything even minor was trumped by the desire to reunite with family and friends. 

When we arrived in South Bend we received a three day leave. Upon returning we had a variety of classes. Representatives from the Marine Corps League, VFW and American Legion came mostly with the intent of increasing membership. Although in the presentations I heard, “Make sure you make a copy of your SRB and medical records, and take your dd-214 to the county recorder’s office.”  I stayed on for a few more months and went to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to assist with off loading equipment. When I returned to South Bend in September, I was demobilized and returned to work.

            In January 2004 I volunteered to go back to Iraq with Bridge Company B, 6th ESB, 4th FSSG, Folsom, Pennsylvania.  Again the exit process was about the same. We took a survey in Iraq, then at Camp Lejeune, the same medical process occurred: a quick interview. This time they said we would be fixed once we arrived at our home unit.  I had shoulder surgery that was done locally in January 2005.  I was released June 23, 2005, less than a month from my end of contract date. 

I have five general issues that I would like to present to this committee:

  1. Pay Issues

  1. Both times I was mobilized I was shorted on my first pay. When I asked the unit administration they said to wait until I got on the base and they will be able to help. Unfortunately, there was not an opportunity to ask on my first deployment and by the end of the deployment I did not mind because I was just happy to be done. But it again happened on my second deployment. Since I found out while I was at Camp Lejeune I went to administration there and they said they could not do anything about it because it was a reserve issue. The reserve administration people could not access what the dock of pay was for but again after finishing up in Iraq I did not care because I was happy to be home and done.   However due to my medical hold my pay was again incorrect. I did not receive notice of this until after I was off of active duty and off of contract. Therefore, my former unit could not answer the questions. I was unable to get through to DFAS – Kansas City because the automated system could not get me to where I needed to go. Finally I received a letter in the mail from different DAFS location and it did not have a phone number so I wrote them and they finally wrote me back but still did not answer all of my questions. So here I am almost 3 years later and I have not resolved my pay issues.

  1. Education

  1. aWhen I signed up in 1997 I understood that I would be eligible for the Reserve GI Bill.  However it was not until I was finishing up in June of 2005 that I found out that I could have been taking college classes while in Iraq on my second deployment and for the eight months I was on medical hold.

  2. My second education issue is that while I was finishing up my second mobilization there was information coming out about the REAP program and the two year consecutive/cumulative buy-in option for reserves to look into. Many troops willing to do the two years to be eligible for the buy-in were blocked because they had to come off of one set of orders and go onto a new set of orders. Everyone was talking about the REAP program but once the dust settled on that program, we found out that you have to be still in the reserves. So many like me who did a cumulative of over two years on active duty met that basic requirement for the time eligibility but were already off of contract. Thus we missed out on the REAP and were prohibited from buying into the active duty GI Bill. This left two to three years worth of deployed troops from the beginning of the war that will not be eligible for additional educational benefits.

  1. Filling a claim with the VA

  1. While I was taking my dd-214 to the county recorder, I saw the sign for the VA service representative. I walked into his office and introduced myself.  There was not much he could do at this time because I was still on contract. But he started a file on me. He recommended I keep a copy of my medical records and SRB when I got off of contract and revisit him. When I fell off of contract I filed an initial claim with the help of the VA Service Representative but it took about eight months for the decision, coming in May 2006.  Between September and December 2006, I had six visits for Post Traumatic Stress Disoder (PTSD). I was not aware that I should file those visits with the VA.  Around February 2007, I went to the Work One office and saw a sign that said “Are you a Veteran? Have you talked to the VA representative?”  He was available so I talked to him. He recommended, because of my rating, that I talk to Jim Garwood with the Vocation-Rehabilitation in Fort Wayne, Indiana. So I met with him and he was very thorough and informative.  I then sent a letter for a re-evaluation and adding PTSD to the VA April, 24, 2007 then on May 7, 2007, the pinched nerve in my back landed me in the hospital.  As of May 2008, the VA has declined to pay this bill, so I am appealing this decision. I had a C & P exam in June 2007 with pending back issues which resulted in surgery in August 2007.  It was at this point that I realized that the VA benefits, C&P, and VA Medical Side have very limited communication with each other.  The decision was in July 2007 and my back was rated the same so I immediately appealed and was reevaluated in October 2007.  I received the decision finally on April 18, 2008 because it was an appeal it had to go through the Notice of Disagreement process.  I found out in December 2007 that the standard procedure for post-back surgery was 100% temporary disability.  I filed the claim along with my appeal and it was denied.  I requested physical therapy for my continued back and neck issues and at first the VA wanted to send me on a two hour one-way drive from South Bend to Fort Wayne for physical therapy.  After an evaluation in Fort Wayne, nothing happened until after my annual follow up in March 2008.  I had to have another evaluation but this time it was with a local physical therapist.  I was finally authorized for physical therapy and had my first appointment in late April 2008.

  1.  Filing process

  1. I initially began my process by filing a claim in South Bend.  I picked the VFW to represent me as my advocate.  When I went back to file my next claim, I had to wait two weeks before I could get in for an appointment due to the previous county service representative.  While the new representative was as helpful as possible, I had more knowledge from experience and internet research. I was under the impression that the organizational service representatives did more but as I found out they are most effective if matters go beyond the Notice of Disagreement process. Otherwise I could file everything on my own directly to the VA.  Over the last year I began sending copies of my paperwork to both the VA directly and the VFW.  I did this in the hope that it would speed up the process as I grew more and more frustrated with the amount of time the process took.

  1. PTSD and Lance Corporal Larry Bowling Jr. of Muncie, Indiana.

  1.  LCPL Bowling was with me on my second deployment to Iraq with Bridge Company Bravo.  On June 29th 2004, he was on a convoy that was hit with an IED. He was in the response vehicle and helped load up our three dead Marines: Sgt Alan Sherman, CPL John Todd, and LCPL Patrick Adle. When we returned to the South Bend Unit, LCPL Bowling was released on terminal leave.  I stayed on and two weeks later he called me late one night having suicidal thoughts.  I called the Corpsman and he contacted the Commanding Officer. The decision was made to wait until the next day and go down to take him to the VA Hospital in Marion. After evaluation he was given medication and released to myself and Sgt. Eugene Plonski. We were directed to return him to his family. LCPL Bowling was then instructed to come to drill weekends instead of being excused for 90 days from drill weekends. Other than one weekend a month he was on his own with no support system from the unit. When I asked the Commanding Officer what we could do for him he said, “He’s Folsom’s problem, not ours.” Within a few months he was given an Other Than Honorable Discharge.

  1. This Marine, who served honorably, reached out to the unit and we failed him.  This is due to a system that was not prepared for handling the PTSD of Reserve Marines and by commands that were not willing or prepared for handling mixed unit issues.

Based on my experience it is my recommendations to this committee are as follows:

  1. Evaluate reserve troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan for PTSD related issues at the 45, 90 day and 1 year mark. These evaluations should be done whether the service member is still on active duty, active reserves, individual ready reserves, or off of contract.

  2. The VA Medical and VA Benefits departments need develop a more efficient communication system to allow for the fast and smoother processing of claims by veterans.

  3. Currently there are no efficient programs post-service that inform veterans of programs and assistance resources in their regions.  Many veterans get frustrated and give up on the system.

  4. Better inform reserve service members, while still under contract, of programs while on active duty and better inform them of programs available post-service using available VA service representatives and other local veterans’ representatives including but not limited to unemployment agencies.

  5. Establish a way for troops to deal with administration problems that occur after they separate from service such as unresolved pay issues.

  6. Reevaluate what services can be offered at the local level. Many veterans do not have the flexibility of schedule or means to travel long distances to receive assistance.

Thank you again for this opportunity.  I now invite you to ask any questions you may have.

Sgt Roy Saenz, USMC

1997-2005