November 28, 2001
By Lena Pennino
Disabled Vietnam Veteran Andres Mees was doing what he always does when he received the phone call, ensuring him $270,000 in back pay owed to him by the federal government. "You're looking at it," Mees, 48, said as he laid upright in a hospital bed at his East Islip home, hands motionless at his side. His speech was slow but clear, as he enunciated each word in a voice like a record player at slow speed. Mees suffers from multiple sclerosis, a paralyzing disease that affects the central nervous system.
Congressman Steve Israel (D-Bay Shore), who advocated on behalf of Mees, helped cut through the "red tape" of the "Veterans Affairs bureaucracy" and secure years of back pay for the vet. On November 19, after seven years of "lame excuses" and "beer stories" from the Department of Veteran Affairs, according to Mees, Israel handed him the checks to "repay the debt we owe you," stated Israel.
Although Mees was in the Navy from 1976-1979 during the Vietnam War as a "glorified gas attendant" who fueled jets, the real battle brewed later when Mees was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1984. In the following years, he would fight for monetary compensation from the government, which has finally acknowledged a connection between Mees's illness and his Navy service time. "I may not have won the battle but I won the war," he stated. Mees gripped a pen in his fist and "signed" for the checks.
Mees's story seems to be common, according to Paul R. De Vaul, Commander of the Suffolk County American Legion. Whether dealing with illnesses stemming from agent orange or other chemicals, "Veterans have to fight and fight to get the government to believe" there is a connection between their disability and their service time, De Vaul explained. "We saw it in World War II, Vietnam and in Desert Storm." The commander explained that it usually takes a "congressman to go to bat for them" in order to get compensated.
Local attorney Felecia Pasculli agreed, "a good part of success is how loud you scream and how hard you push. You need a forceful advocate." Pasculli, Mees's pro-bono attorney, has worked with veterans in the past and points to problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs. "They don't do their job," stated Pasculli. "They have a backlog of 600,000 cases."
Pasculli also disagrees with the policy in which vets are denied access to an attorney until late in the appeals process, when applying for a disability claim. "They are denied due process."
Israel, although pleased that the Department of Veterans Affairs "worked with us and paid their debt to Mr. Mees," mentioned that the department is overburdened with "so many claims" while being "short-staffed." He further recommended a department assessment, is calling for the federal government to "make the VA a budget priority," and stresses the department's need for better technology.
When Mees's wife spoke to the Department of Veterans Affairs recently, a VA representative expressed resentment that a lawyer and a congressman were involved. The VA rep shifted the blame onto Paulette and Andres Mees. After seven years of calls and lost paperwork, the VA employee "had the nerve to say, 'You just didn't talk to the right person,'" Paulette Mees stated.
After losing her job because she needed to be near her husband, Paulette eventually settled into a home-based preventative medicine business called Nikken. Unfortunately, she saw sales drop after the September 11 attack. This money came through "at the best time," Paulette said. "I couldn't buy food for Thanksgiving. I was really getting scared." Now, the Mees family will receive a monthly check to help defray their health and living costs.
As the American Legion Veterans, political personnel and reporters funneled from her home, Paulette looked around from her dining room table. With the money, she could widen the doors for Andres' wheelchair. Get an assistant to help care for her husband. Buy a hydraulic lift to move Andres from his bed to a chair. Pay the property taxes in December. Fill the empty refrigerator.
Her eyes rested on a wall in the living room, where there were shelves, protruding pegs and unfinished wood. She remembered when her husband was always busy fixing up the house. Before he lost the feeling in his feet, before he stumbled through doorways, before he needed full-time care, he practiced his carpentry skills at home, often recruiting his family in his efforts. Andres was a man who could "never sit still. That was his last project," she said, nodding toward the incomplete work. "He couldn't finish it."
©Suffolk Life Newspapers 2001