In more than a decade with the Department of Veterans Affairs, Jason McClelland, director of the Portland VA office, has never seen a case like James Loveless’.
Its complexities are familiar to The World’s readers, but it took several years before VA staff concluded their report on the matter.
The case features a review triggered by a presidential proclamation, corresponding congressional action and a fair amount of miscommunication.
And, for now, Loveless is being denied VA benefits despite a discharge that was upgraded to honorable.
The confusing twists and turns of his case began in 1968, when Loveless completed his service in the U.S. Navy.
The Vietnam veteran received an undesirable discharge due to repeated flights from duty he attributes to post traumatic stress disorder. He later obtained an upgrade — or so he thought.
In 2004, he was told his discharge was “under dishonorable conditions” and he would not be eligible for benefits. A year later, the VA recognized his upgrade and told him he could apply for services including medical treatment.
Then, in 2006, Loveless was simply told he was not entitled to benefits.
Needless to say, Loveless was confused.
He was not alone.
McClelland said the first two correspondences were sent by staff who hadn’t performed a complete review of Loveless’ record.
“It was premature for them to release that,” he said.
McClelland would not fault VA personnel for the untimely mailings because of the unusual nature of the case.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 or 12 years,” he said. “(Loveless’ case) is the first of this kind I’ve seen.”
The three conflicting letters stem from a series of decisions from the 1970s, centered around efforts to forgive draft dodgers and military deserters following the Vietnam war.
In 1974, President Gerald Ford issued a proclamation to “afford reconciliation to Vietnam era draft evaders and military deserters.” One provision called for the creation of a clemency board to review the records of veterans with undesirable discharges due to unsanctioned absences.
Few veterans applied, so when he came to office, President Jimmy Carter created a discharge review program. Loveless was one of about 16,000 veterans who applied and received an upgraded discharge.
A New York Times article from 1977 said it was rare for a veteran to have his discharge upgraded from undesirable to honorable, but Loveless’ records indicate his was one of the few that was.
But in October 1977, Carter signed a bill requiring veterans to undergo another review before receiving benefits from such an upgrade.
Loveless had his case reviewed again, but this time he was not as fortunate. He was denied benefits.
McClelland said he reviewed Loveless’ case, and noted a series of absences without leave that probably led to the decision to deny benefits.
“That was the key pattern I saw referenced,” he said.
Loveless disagrees with the decision and submitted an appeal April 3. He argues his absences were a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, which led to depression and an inability to serve.
“My discharge from the service was not due to willful and persistent misconduct,” he writes in his appeal. “It was due to the fact that my superiors … had no idea what I had been through, nor did they have any idea of the horrendous effect it would have on myself and other veterans.”
McClelland said Loveless may not be able to qualify for VA benefits, but he can receive treatment for service-related medical conditions. In order to qualify, Loveless must complete paperwork that was sent to him March 20, McClelland said.
Loveless has been seen at a VA clinic, though he said he was snuck in by a counselor.
“It was under the table,” he said.
According to medical records obtained by The World, Loveless has received a preliminary diagnosis for PTSD as well as a diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia that may be connected to his exposure to Agent Orange.
Loveless said he filed his appeal not out of need but to make a point. He is not lacking for help, with access to the Oregon Health Plan and Supplemental Security Income. But he wants the military to acknowledge its role in his failing health.
“It wasn’t the Oregon Health Plan or SSI that hit me with radiation or sprayed me with poison,” he said. “I think the VA should stand responsible for what they have done.”