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For ailing vets, a call to arms

Jersey contingent heads to Washington to battle for better health care funding

Tuesday, April 25, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff

Don Scholtes survived a year of heavy combat in Vietnam and then spent the next 34 years doing a job he loved: sound producer for ABC Sports.

The job put him on a first-name basis with legendary broadcasters like the late Howard Cosell. It thrilled him

every time his sound crew pulled off another Monday Night Football game without a hitch. And it gave him a

lifetime of stories, like when he won a bet with Joe Frazier and walked away with the boxer's suede fedora.

It all came crashing to an end a few months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks when Scholtes found himself

drinking for the first time in 20 years, arguing with co-workers and finally, unable to board a plane to an

assignment. The demons Scholtes had locked away since Vietnam were out.

"All I could feel was isolation and rage," Scholtes said. "I didn't know why."

It was the beginning of a three-year odyssey inside the Veterans Administration health system, where Scholtes,

59, of Mantoloking, began treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder. For the first time, Scholtes came across

veterans let down by a system he -- and every major veterans group -- believes is chronically underfunded.

So Scholtes walked away from ABC and became a full-time veterans' advocate.

Today, he will lead a contingent of 50 New Jersey veterans to a rally in Washington, D.C. They will join perhaps

1,500 other veterans from around the country to press Congress to increase the $80 billion VA budget President

Bush proposed in January. Last year, Congress needed to pass an emergency appropriation to plug a $1.5

billion shortfall in the agency's health care budget.

Organizers say today's rally, while small by Washington standards, is significant because it marks the first time in

recent memory veterans have come together in any substantial number to make their case directly to Congress.

Gene Simes, the organizer of the rally dubbed "Operation Firing For Effect," said turnout isn't the important thing.

"What matters is that we educate the public -- and show Congress that veterans are a voting block and we will

not be silenced," said Simes, a Vietnam veteran from Walworth, N.Y.

Although veterans' concerns are already voiced in Washington by a host of congressionally charted

organizations, such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, many of the people planning to

attend today's rally say Congress needs to hear voices of the rank-and-file.

"They tell us to write our congressman. Writing a letter is nice, but you know where that gets filed. You've got to

rattle their cage," said Mike Reilly, a Vietnam veteran who will travel from his home in Medford, Burlington


Most veterans say the quality of health care they receive from the VA is not the issue. Their complaints involve

funding for the VA's health and benefits system.

Although the VA health care budget has increased nearly 50 percent since 2001, the number of veterans

seeking treatment has swelled from 4.3 million to 7.5 million over that same period. The jump came from an

influx of new veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and as Vietnam-era veterans turned to the VA health care system

for the first time.

The drastic jump has led to backlogs. Last April, there were 15,211 people waiting for VA health services. The

number doubled to 30,475 this month, according to VA data released last week by Rep. Lane Evans of Illinois,

the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

There is also a growing backlog of disability claims.

That's what brings Reilly to Washington today.

For the past six years, he fought for increased disability payments. The VA acknowledges that Reilly, who

served nine months in the DMZ as a Marine Corps transportation officer, was exposed to Agent Orange.

They also acknowledge the poisonous defoliant is the likely culprit for Reilly's diabetes. But so far they've failed

to pay an additional disability claim for Reilly's high blood pressure, a condition the VA also acknowledges is

generally a side effect of Agent Orange.

He's awaiting a ruling from a federal veterans appeals court, which has a 2 1/2-year backlog.

Reilly, a retired teacher, said that if he ultimately wins, he'll receive about $20,000 in back benefits.

But Reilly, who volunteered for officer candidate school after college, said it isn't about the money.

"I volunteered to serve," Reilly said. "And they told us they were going to take care of us -- and they're not doing


Many of the veterans who will rally today -- most from the Vietnam era and a smaller number from World War II

and Korea -- say they're worried about America's newest veterans.

Bob Stephens of Old Bridge attends a post-traumatic stress support group that draws as many as 150 Vietnam

veterans each week to the VA hospital in East Orange.

"We want the guys coming back now to get something we never did," he said. "And we know a lot of these guys

coming back are going to have some of the same issues we do, like PTSD."

VA data shows they already do. The agency expected to provide mental health services to 18,000 Iraq and

Afghanistan veterans in the current fiscal year. They eclipsed that number in the first three months, according to

agency statistics.

The newest veterans -- and the older ones who find themselves entering retirement without private health

insurance -- are the ones Scholtes says he's most concerned about.

Three decades at ABC allowed him to retire to a big house overlooking Barnegat Bay. He keeps on an even keel

with a cocktail of antidepressants, a weekly meeting with other veterans suffering from PTSD , twice-monthly

visits with a private psychologist and four appointments with a VA psychiatrist each year.

He thinks every day about walking away from the world he loved at the relatively young age of 56.

"It wasn't the kind of job you surrender easily, but I had to do it," said Scholtes.

He finds comfort in helping other veterans navigate the maze of VA benefits rules.

Until a few years ago, he found some of these men puzzling. "I'd see a guy with the long hair and the fatigue

jacket and think -- what the hell is wrong with him? Now I understand those guys fell and nobody was there to

catch them.

"Veterans are the price of war. You have to know that when you send them to spill their blood the bill will come

due," he said. "We're back. The bill is due."

Wayne Woolley covers veterans affairs. He may be reached at or (973) 392-1559.

2006 The Star Ledger

2006 All Rights Reserved. 1 (3 of 3)4/25/2006 10:39:19 PM


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