California National Guard Fails to Meet Deadlines on Critical Benefits Requests - NBC Bay Area
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California National Guard Fails to Meet Deadlines on Critical Benefits Requests

California led the nation in delays processing ‘line of duty’ claims for service members

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    NEWSLETTERS

    They have earned medals and honors for their service to our country, but members of the California National Guard say the military has let them down. Testimony from current and former service members and records obtained by NBC Bay Area point to serious delays in the processing of paperwork that opens the door to financial support for injuries and illnesses Guard members sustained in the line of duty. Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski reports in a story that aired on September 24, 2015. (Published Monday, Oct. 5, 2015)

    They served their country with honor but say they have been betrayed by the state’s military department. Members of the California National Guard blame their leaders for delays in processing critical paperwork that acts as the gateway to financial support for injuries and illnesses sustained while in service to the country.

    The process is called a line of duty investigation (LOD). Much like a workers’ compensation decision, an LOD opens the door to medical care, health benefits and incapacitation pay for service members who have been hurt or fallen ill during service.

    Military regulations state that the Guard must complete an LOD investigation in 75 days or less. But the California National Guard has grossly failed to meet those timelines, according to records obtained by NBC Bay Area and testimony from current and former service members.

    “It’s incredibly, incredibly frustrating,” said Michael Sternberg, a former member of the California National Guard.

    Sternberg made his first official LOD request in 2011 for a series of medical conditions and injuries he said he sustained while serving on active duty and in the Guard. In total, he has requested seven LOD investigations. He said the Guard failed to complete any of them by the military’s deadlines. Six took more than four years to complete. He is still waiting for an answer about one of them. In five instances, the Guard found that his injuries and illnesses were not sustained in the line of duty.

    “It’s a disgrace,” Sternberg said. “Here are the people that have a claim that they’ve been hurt by part time military service and the government is responsible for taking care of that.”

    Numerous letters to the California National Guard, the National Guard Bureau in Washington D.C., and state and federal lawmakers failed to produce timely answers to his LOD requests.

    In May, the Guard responded to an inquiry from U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer’s office. The Guard blamed much of the delay on Sternberg’s failure to produce requested documentation—a claim Sternberg denies. But the Guard also admitted some responsibility, writing that Sternberg’s unit “failed to initiate an LOD investigation for alleged injury” that happened in August 2011. The Guard did not begin the investigation process until March 2013.

    One of Sternberg’s LODs was overdue before it even crossed the desk of Lt. Alan Downey—an investigating officer the Guard appointed to review Sternberg’s paperwork.

    “I could see from the documents from years ago that this was a long time in the making,” Downey said. “I don’t know why they took so long for his case to get to me.”

    Sternberg said the Guard hasn’t been able to answer that question either.

    “I wish I had a good answer for you other than my suspicion all along is that this has been a systemic problem,” Sternberg said. “This process is completely broken and does not work for anyone.”

    Public records obtained exclusively by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit reveal that the problem of overdue LODs extends well beyond Sternberg’s case.

    A February 2013 memo written by a colonel in the Guard reads, “California has over 1,300 overdue LODs and is the highest number of LODs by any state in the nation.” A weekly snapshot of LODs shows that the Guard’s overdue rate remained high in early 2015. In June, 66 percent of all LODs were overdue after spiking in February when the rate was 88 percent.

    NBC Bay Area also obtained a database of the California National Guard’s LODs since August 2009. Over the past six years, 73 percent of all completed LODs did not meet the military’s required timelines. Fifty-nine percent of all LODs were never completed. Some LOD requests have gone unanswered for more than four years.

    The data also reveals deficiencies in how the Guard tracks line of duty investigations. According to the Guard, LODs can be “administratively closed” by an investigator or service member. However, an LOD will automatically close in the same way after six months of inactivity. There is no way to know from the data why and when these LODs were closed.

    “These folks, they served our country. They deserve better. That’s the bottom line,” said Ben Banchs, business manager for the union that represents members of the Guard.

    He said service members have raised repeated concerns about the Guard’s delay in processing their line of duty investigations.

    “The regulations are there,” Banchs said. “Nobody is following them.”

    Take the case of Daniel Dresen. He said he became ill while serving with the California Army Guard and that his health deteriorated on a subsequent deployment to Kuwait. He said he requested an LOD for his condition in 2007, but by 2010 the Guard had dismissed his claim due to “non-action” from his unit.

    “After three years it just got swept under the rug and fizzled out,” Dresen said.

    The Guard finally completed his LOD last October. Guard leaders ruled that Dresen’s illness did not happen in the line of duty.

    Another guard member, Ryan Zarick, is still waiting for an answer to the LOD request he made in early 2014.

    For 24 years, Zarick served as a guardsman, Marine, Army soldier and Airman, when he flew supplies into Bagdad during the Iraq War. He said he can’t understand why the California National Guard has failed to provide him with a completed LOD, given that the Veterans Administration (VA) has already determined that Zarick’s PTSD is 100 percent service-connected.

    “It comes down to they don’t care,” Zarick said.

    Dozens of other Guard members have shared their own experiences navigating the LOD process on an online forum started by Jason Perry, an attorney and former officer in the Massachusetts National Guard. Perry said numerous people from California have contacted him specifically to discuss problems with their LODs.

    “At the highest levels if the Governor or Adjutant General or Chief of the National Guard Bureau said ‘This is unacceptable and we need to get it fixed, put a track on this and put hard timelines on it’—it would get addressed,” Perry said. “The problem I see is the lack of command emphasis on the problem is not present.”

    The Guard has acknowledged problems meeting LOD deadlines and said it is taking steps to address the delays, but the agency declined to provide specifics. Guard personnel have suggested outdated computer systems and confusion over who is responsible for initiating LOD investigations have contributed to the delays.

    The California National Guard declined interview requests and refused to make available Adjutant General David Baldwin—the man in charge of the Guard.

    Instead a Guard spokesperson released a statement. “The wellbeing of our soldiers and airmen is the California National Guard’s highest priority,” the statement reads in part. “We have reduced the number of pending cases 70 percent from 1,300 in 2010 to 400 today, and are committed to continuing this progress.”

    For many members of the California National Guard, the delays—and the fight for answers—have real consequences. The waiting has taken a toll on their finances, their personal lives and their families. After serving their country, they believe they simply deserve an answer.

    “That time could have been better spent on improving my health, on doing well in school, on fathering my children, on participating in my community,” Sternberg said. “Instead I’ve wasted a tremendous amount of time spinning my wheels just to get an answer to something that should have been a very simple process.”

    If you have a tip for the Investigative Unit email theunit@nbcbayarea.com or call 888-996-TIPS.

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