13News Now is investigating if Hampton Roads veterans are getting the care they are entitled to at the Veterans Affairs Medical Centers.
Vets around the country and right here in Hampton Roads are suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI, an injury we've seen time and time again in the war on terror. In most cases the injury affects every day life and has become the price paid for a veteran's service. There are some, though, who have yet to be diagnosed. 13News Now wanted to know whether or not the person vets are trusting to make that determination is qualified to do so.
The story Butch Hamersma tells could have come from any number of soldiers sent to Vietnam. In 1968, he was halfway across the world from his Minnesota home serving his country. The then 20-year-old drove over a landmine in a personnel carrier.
"Three days later, I woke up in Japan," he recalled.
Even though he doesn't remember the explosion, he still feels its effects working on his farm today.
"Busted my jaw in two places," he said.
After losing his private insurance in 2012, Butch applied for benefits with the V.A. It was then, four decades later, that he received his first TBI exam. It is "who" performed that exam, which has sparked concern.
The V.A.'s own rules specify who is qualified to perform the exam, which can make that crucial initial TBI diagnosis. The list includes specialists like physiatrists, psychiatrists, neurologists and neurosurgeons, not someone like the nurse practitioner who originally determined Butch did not have a TBI.
"You go to your appointments and do what they tell you to do," Butch said, "You take it for granted they know what they're doing."
Our sister station, KARE 11 in Minneapolis, Minn. pushed for answers. Their stories led to hundreds of Minnesota vets, like Butch, being offered new TBI exams with qualified doctors. Hundreds of vets can now get their shot at the care they're owed after putting their lives on the line for the United States.
"There's no excuse," said Ben Krause, an attorney who specializes in veterans' rights. "The V.A. has absolutely no excuse."
We wanted to know how vets in our area are being treated. 13News Now filed requests to find out if vets here have received the competent care and compensation they're entitled to. Through the Freedom of Information Act, we asked for the names, titles and certifications of anyone performing this initial TBI exam. The V.A. denied our request, citing privacy concerns for the healthcare professionals.
A letter from the V.A. said release of the information, "would result in an unwarranted invasion of an individual's personal privacy without contributing significantly to the public's understanding of the activities of the federal government."
"I'm very surprised and disappointed," said Virginia Beach attorney Kevin Martingayle, who examined the denial letter for us.
"Here what we have is a blanket denial," he said, "These are individuals who have decided to work for the government, they're paid with tax money, so what they do and what their qualifications are, should be public."
13News Now and our parent company, TEGNA, are appealing the V.A.'s denial in the hopes of finding out if veterans here are receiving the care their sacrifice has earned.
"I think that people would be appalled to think that the government is withholding information that could help veterans and others know whether or not the government officials doing things are doing it correctly," Martingayle said, "I mean this is just a simple matter of verifying competence. It's a simple matter of fairness."
If you are a veteran and think you might be one of the people whose initial TBI exam was performed by someone who does not meet the VA's qualifications, we want to hear from you, email us at 13Investigates@wvec.com.