LITTLE FALLS, MINN. - Kevin Brown knew he needed help.
The 11-year Army veteran with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan was suffering from PTSD, a brain injury, a back injury causing arthritis in his elbows and knees and a chronic skin ailment contracted in the desert of Iraq. But his calls to the county's veterans service office in his hometown of Duluth proved more frustrating than helpful.
"Calling them and saying, 'Hey, I'd like to make an appointment,' they said, 'OK, we'll see you in about two months when we can fit you in,'" Brown said. "That was a huge deterrent."
After moving to tiny Morrison County in central Minnesota, it was less than a week from the time he stopped by the county veterans service office to when he was getting his initial physical in St. Cloud. About five months later, disability checks began arriving.
Brown's experience reflects the quiet reality for disabled veterans in Minnesota: getting the benefits they deserve often simply comes down to where they live. A veteran in Little Falls or Royalton, for example, is more likely to be receiving disability benefits than a veteran living in Minneapolis or St. Paul, even if they fought in the same war and have the same injury.
A Star Tribune analysis of VA disability payments in Minnesota found wide geographic disparities in benefits paid to disabled veterans, with rural areas generally more effective at getting veterans aid.
The issue of who gets benefits and how much they receive will take on added importance as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to a close and a flood of new veterans with war injuries return home seeking help.
An Iraq era veteran in Little Falls with the hearing ailment tinnitus, for instance, is nine times more likely to be getting benefits than an Iraq veteran in the Lynhurst neighborhood of south Minneapolis. An Iraq era veteran with a back strain injury in Royalton is four times more likely to be receiving compensation than an Iraq veteran in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul, according to the analysis of payments to veterans in 858 ZIP codes in the state.
Little Falls, in Morrison County, has one of the highest rates of veterans receiving disability payments of any ZIP code in the state, while a Wayzata ZIP code has the lowest rate. With the exception of one Minneapolis ZIP code and Elko New Market in Scott County, the top 20 ZIP codes were all small towns outside the metro area. Ten of the bottom 20 ZIP codes are in Hennepin or Ramsey counties, the state's most populous.
For Brown, the different attitude in Little Falls was startling. "Before I even met with the county veterans service officer here I had at least six veterans tell me, 'Make sure you ask about your dental. Make sure you ask about your [compensation], make sure you ask about your eligibility tier for care' -- words I had never heard of," he said. He receives $1,200 a month, has had his car equipped with special seats and will soon receive a service dog to help in day-to-day activities.
A widespread issue
Veterans groups do not dispute that the disparities exist but point to several factors that might contribute, including income differences in parts of the state, the availability of other resources in bigger cities and how aggressive different county veterans' advocates may be in filing claims and funding veterans service offices.
Michael Viterna, president of the National Organization of Veterans' Advocates, which helps veterans file disability claims, said the Department of Veterans Affairs has not consistently applied its standards, leaving large segments of veterans without benefits they have earned.
"The agency needs a major overhaul," he said.
McClatchy Newspapers last year reviewed 3.2 million VA disability records nationwide. Among the news service's findings: Despite attempts to improve consistency among regional offices, the VA's disability payments remain wildly uneven nationwide. It found, for example, that a veteran in Kentucky is likely to have a higher disability payment than one who lives in South Dakota, often for the same ailment.
Minnesota has already tried to tackle the issue, but efforts petered out. A 2008 Legislative Auditor report, which found a wide range in both the number of veterans served by county veterans service offices and how much they received -- from $6,250 in Watonwan County to $18,300 in Le Sueur County -- recommended the Legislature give the state VA more authority to improve oversight of the county offices. It was particularly important to measure performance and ensure traditionally underserved groups, such as the homeless, minorities and women, receive benefits, the report said.
But a working group made up of state legislators, the state VA and county veterans officials convened after the auditor's report made its own findings a year later: that there was no need to transfer authority from counties and that the current system was working "exceptionally well."
Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said he has continued to be disappointed by the response to the report, blaming opposition from a group of county service officers that he said wanted to "protect autonomy and turf."
"When we proposed more accountability and stronger oversight, this group of county officers had one simple response: 'Leave us alone,'" Nobles said. "Unfortunately, state officials and legislators were unwilling to push back against that attitude and declared that everything was fine."
Said Duane Brownie, president of the state association of county veterans service officers and head of veteran services in Carlton County: "Our job is to work for the veteran; we don't work for the state or the VA. That's what keeps us unique."
Minnesota VA spokeswoman Anna Long said disparities in how federal VA benefits are distributed could be affected by the economic condition of the region and the availability of other services for veterans.
"County veteran services officers compete every day for shrinking county resources, paid for by local property taxes, and do an amazing job with what they are allocated," Long said.
Maria Wetherall, director of Ramsey County's veterans services, said metro counties face unique challenges such as high rates of homeless veterans and frequent needs to work with agencies such as human services, public health, corrections and the courts.
"It's not just benefits that are available to veterans that veterans need," she said. "We have to go to what is going to be helpful to these individuals and their family. We do think different about that in the metro area because we have to."
A model of help
Little Falls, the boyhood home of Charles Lindbergh, could be seen as a model of how to serve its veterans. Outside of town, the Minnesota National Guard's training site, Camp Ripley, employs 400 workers on any given day, many of them former active-duty military or current Guard members. Camp Ripley's annual contribution to the local economy includes $44 million in pensions for retired Department of Defense and military personnel.
The Veterans Affairs office, at the Morrison County courthouse, couldn't be more visible, situated next to the county board meeting room.
Veterans service officer Paul Froncak said it is not uncommon for veterans from the Twin Cities with out-state connections to make their way to other counties to file for benefits. A veteran can file anywhere and be paid no matter where he or she lives.
"There's no concertina wire around county borders," he said.
Froncak, a Vietnam era Army veteran, has been in the office since 1986. His paperwork-laden and baseball memorabilia-filled office reflects a passion for his work.
"There's not a lot of jobs on the planet where you can leave at the end of the day and feel like you've accomplished something, especially when you are dealing with a bureaucratic jungle like that," he said. "You haven't just made someone's day, you've turned their life around."
Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434