The first notes of the military march blasted through the coffee shop, loud enough to turn heads.
Julie Plumer murmured an apology and fumbled with the volume button on her tablet. After years in the percussion section of an Army band, her hearing isn’t what it used to be.
Softer now, the band in the video played on. It’s an encore performance by the veterans of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) band, America’s last all-female military band. The musicians, filmed during a reunion this summer, ranged in age from 61 to 82. They didn’t miss a note.
Plumer, 66, is visible in the background of the video, flitting around the percussion section, from snare drum to xylophone and back. She beamed as the band struck up “Duty,” the WAC song.
“Duty is calling you and me. We have a date with destiny,” she sang along to a tune many people only know from the actors who whistled it on their way to the “Bridge on the River Kwai.” “Ready, the WACs are ready. Their pulse is steady, a world to set free.”
Plumer is one of 20 million American veterans, and there’s no reason to wait until Nov. 11 to remember that millions of those veterans could use our help.
Plumer hopes to convince the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to link her hearing loss to the years she spent banging the drum for Uncle Sam. She spent six years performing next to booming cannons. When she was stationed in Germany in the 1970s, the band’s rehearsal space was an old stone stable where the music bounced off the walls so loudly one performance registered a painful 120 decibels — somewhere in the range of a chain saw or a thunderclap.
The VA supplies Plumer’s hearing aids and batteries. But she says if she could get her hearing loss classified as service-connected, even by just 10 percent, then “so many doors would open” for other help and benefits.
Plumer lives in subsidized housing and lives off Social Security disability benefits she says come to about $12,000 a year. This close to the end of the month, she can’t afford the grocery store or the gas station, but she thinks she has enough left in the tank of her rusty 21-year-old car to get to the rehearsal of the community band she joined.
She’s one veteran among millions. One veteran among the 1,000 a month who apply to the Minneapolis VA Health System for benefits.
“I stopped counting around 19,000,” said Dr. Greg Matlock, medical director for compensation and pensions at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. He started a running count of the exams he performed on veterans seeking medical benefits in mid-2013, when the system was battling a case backlog, and gave up the tally after five long years.
Applications come in from young soldiers with traumatic brain injuries and veterans in hospice trying to secure benefits for spouses or dependent children. He’s even seen a few hearing loss claims from veterans of military bands.
Matlock, a veteran himself, knows how confusing the claims paperwork can be.
Fortunately, there are people who can help veterans with a process that starts by filing paperwork to signal your intention to file paperwork. There are state, county and tribal veteran outreach workers who can help navigate the bureaucracy. Groups like the VFW help veterans file claims. And if you’re really having trouble getting someone to listen to you, Minnesota’s congressional and Senate offices have been known to throw their weight behind constituents’ claims.
But for Plumer, whose last service-connected disability claim was rejected, the idea of starting again is frustrating. She’s met other military band veterans, all men, who told her their request for service-related disability benefits for hearing loss were granted without fuss.
She served at a time when women had limited career options. She’d hoped things would be different now.
“They are not dealing appropriately with a lot of people, but especially not with older female veterans,” she said. “They should be treating them with some understanding and dignity, and they’re not.”
So she tries to stay busy. She spent years volunteering in schools. She recently added the mandolin to the long list of instruments she plays and joined an all-mandolin orchestra.
She remains fiercely proud of the years she spent with the 14th Army WAC Band. In 1978, the Army disbanded the WAC, and the women’s units were integrated with male units, including the band.
“Service, we’re in it heart and soul,” she took up the anthem again. “Victory is our only goal. We love our country’s honor, and we’ll defend it against any foe.”
Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks