Net Summary

Uncle Sam's new rules may make it easier for veterans to claim federal benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder, but those claims still have to be proved, cautions a volunteer who assists veterans in processing claims.

"There is a lot of controversy and confusion at this point — veterans need to know it's not a given," stressed Joseph Fidura, 54, the Disabled American Veteran national representative at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City.

"I tell those who call, 'First of all, you need to get a medical diagnosis,' " said the disabled Army veteran. "Without a clear and precise medical diagnosis for combat-related PTSD, it is not a given. It has to be proved."

However, the new DVA policy that went into effect Tuesday is intended to simplify the claims process, he said.

"This is a good effort to speed up the process," Fidura said. He estimates the change means an application could be completed in as little as six months instead of up to a year.

"The VA is so inundated now," he added. "And these young people really need the help now, not a couple of years down the road."

Until the change, noncombat veterans had to show they were traumatized by a specific event — with incident reports, witness statements or other evidence. The VA has reduced the evidence needed if the applicant's trauma claim is related to fear of hostile military or terrorist activity and is consistent with the veteran's service record, according to department officials.

"This nation has a solemn obligation to the men and women who have honorably served this country and suffer from the often devastating emotional wounds of war," said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki in a prepared statement. "This final regulation goes a long way to ensure that veterans receive the benefits and services they need."

Over at the Jackson County veterans service office, veterans have been inundating the office with questions about the new rules for eligibility regarding PTSD compensation, said veterans service officer Tonya Flockoi.

"We're getting a lot of calls about the change, asking whether they should refile and how to go about it," said Flockoi, who expects even more veterans to inquire about PTSD. The office already helps 30 to 40 veterans a day, she noted.

Most of the calls are coming from veterans whose earlier requests for PTSD compensation were not granted, she said.

The applications largely come from veterans of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, she said.

"We had a lot of people who didn't quality," she said. "The hardest thing for them to get is a verifiable stressor that the VA can go back and verify. That's been a huge requirement."

"This is a streamlined process, but they still have to meet the criteria," Fidura reiterated. "Right now I'm getting claims through in approximately nine months to a year.

Fidura said he has not processed any claims under the new rules yet, "but once it gets going I can see this cutting the claims process down to five or six months," he added.

For more information, go online to www.va.gov or call the VA's benefits number at 1-800-827-1000.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.