It seems like a little black cloud forms over the heads of those that fight the bureaucracy. Andy Torres, an Oglala Lakota veteran, discovered that.
Torres served with honor in the United States Army from 1961 to 1964. After his honorable discharge he joined the South Dakota Army National Guard. He served 19 years and was just one year away from the required 20 years in order to retire when his life began to unravel.
That is when the comedy of errors began. While working at his sister's house on his day off from his job, he fell from a porch and badly injured his leg. He reported to the Veteran's Hospital at Fort Meade in Sturgis, SD and underwent arthroscopic surgery. The first operation failed to solve the problem.
At this stage in his life Torres, known to his friends and family as "Buzzy," was a journeyman electrician making a good living. The injury prevented him from working. He again went to the hospital at Ft. Meade for a second operation. That was the final nail in his efforts to move on. The second operation "crippled me for life," he said.
Unable to climb a ladder or work on a scaffold, his lifetime profession as an electrician came to a bitter end. He could not do the PT (Physical Training) exercises expected of all members of the Guard, but he hoped they would waive this portion of his enlistment requirement and allow him to complete his final year in order to retire with a pension.
It was not to be. An officer brought him some legal papers and told him to sign them. It was his discharge from the Guard. The officer said, "It doesn't matter whether you sign them or not because we're going to bounce you anyhow." The doctor at the VA hospital, the one that had performed the operation that crippled him, said, "Get a desk job somewhere."
"All I had was a GED so how could I get a desk job," Torres said. He did the next thing that nearly every military veteran does; he applied to the Veteran's Administration for a disability pension in 1989 and was rejected. He applied again in 1990 only to be rejected again.
He then took his medical records to the Social Security Administration and they approved him for 100 percent disability. Torres still scratches his head over that one. "How could the VA deny my claim and yet the Social Security approve them," he keeps asking himself?
When his friend Melvin Brewer was running a small VA office on the Pine Ridge Reservation Torres asked him for advice. Brewer, known as "Dickey" to his friends, told him a story that shocked him. Brewer said, "I submitted the files of six Indian vets to the South Dakota Veteran's Office in Sioux Falls and all six were denied. I called the office and asked about how many claims filed by Native Americans were denied. The irate secretary told me that no such thing would ever occur at her office."
Brewer submitted the same six files again, without change, and four of the six were subsequently approved. A claims lawyer in Nebraska told Torres that if he lived in Nebraska his claim would have been approved years ago. He said, "South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana are the most prejudiced states against Native Americans in the Union. They have the same problem with the VA in Puerto Rico where almost all of the claims are also denied."
For 20 years Torres and many other Lakota veterans, have been seeking to have their disability claims approved and even though the VA later told Torres that he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress, his claims are still denied. Torres has had contact with the offices of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD), Congress Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) and with the former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) seeking help, but he said they can offer their sympathy and maybe inquire about his claims, but they are powerless to make anything happen.
Maybe if they suspected that there were real cases of racial discrimination within the decision making of the VA, they could then step forward and ask some hard questions about why Lakota veterans are singled out for denial when they apply for disability pensions.
Torres was an Army veteran crippled by the very administration that is denying his claims for disability. He said, "A few years back I was at the VA Hospital at Ft. Meade and I saw Sam DeCory, a Lakota that served as a Green Beret in Vietnam, sitting in a wheelchair. I told him about my fight with the VA and he said, 'Buzzy, never give up. You fight those SOB's until your dead.'"
There is a saying among the Lakota vets that goes, "First you apply, then they deny, and hope you will die." Let's hope that all of the Native American veterans that sacrificed their all for this country will find a path through the red tape that continues to bind their lives. That little black cloud has rained upon them for far too long.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Lakota Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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