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Iraq war veteran burned by ‘very frustrating process’ at VA

By   /   April 12, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 48 of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

MADISON, Wis. – Kris Ottman’s job came with the kind of stress that few ever experience.

Photo contributed.

DENIED: Iraq War veteran Kris Ottman says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs denied his disability claim despite his painful digestive disorder that the VA acknowledges was service-related.

He lived a ticking time bomb existence – literally – in a place that gave hell a run for its money.

Ottman joined the Army in 2004 as an explosive ordinance deployment specialist – part of the Army’s bomb squad. He worked as an ammunition specialist during two tours of duty in the Iraq War.

The 31-year-old Wausau resident saw more than he wants to say: mortar attacks, the strain of cleaning out rigged Humvees following improvised explosive device explosions. He pulled out bombs and he dragged out bodies. When he wasn’t dealing with explosives he and his fellow soldiers were taking enemy fire in unarmed vehicles.

But the war wasn’t over for Ottman when he left Iraq in 2009. His fight for the care his country promised him in exchange for those stressful days of service was just beginning.

VA heartburn

During his first tour in 2005-06, the specialist developed problems with his digestive system. In short, his esophagus stopped working. He said he dropped 30 pounds during deployment.

“Imagine the worst heartburn, but 10 times worse,” he said. Ottman couldn’t keep water down, let alone food.  No one could figure out what was causing it.

He eventually came back to the United States to have laparoscopic surgery. Doctors wrapped a portion of his stomach lining around the bottom of the esophagus to support the sphincter muscle. The idea is to prevent corrosive stomach acid from invading the esophagus.

It worked. For a while.

But within 18 months, Ottman said, his esophagus got so tight he was having trouble swallowing. The pain is debilitating, he said.

“I end up dry heaving and the suture eventually starts to wear down. Then I start coughing up blood,” the veteran said.

The remedy has been an elongated balloon to stretch out the esophagus. The procedures uses a scope to determine whether there has been any tearing. Usually there is evidence of erosion.

Ottman said he has had the dilation done three times. He was under the impression that the surgery was not covered by the Army when he left active service in 2010.

The U.S. Department Veterans Affairs acknowledged Ottman’s esophageal problems were service-related. Yet, the agency gave Ottman a zero on the VA disability rating chart, which means the VA isn’t going to provide compensation for the disability that Ottman asserts is clearly the result of his war service. The ruling was contrary to a private health care provider’s finding.

Ottman previously had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the VA rated his PTSD as a service-related injury, at 30 percent on its disability chart. The veteran is entitled to monthly compensation.

The stress, he said, was what destroyed his esophagus, during and after the war. Ottman said he had never experienced anything like it before he was sent to Iraq, and there was no family history of the disorder.

“The reason why my digestive system started to fail was due to the stress and diet changes of being deployed and the things I was dealing with overseas. That’s how my body chose to deal with it,” he said. “It was related to my deployment, like my PTSD is. The fact the VA sees it as zero percent, well, it’s ‘Sorry, sucks to be you.’ That’s how I perceive their view of it. And it’s partly because they don’t want to pay out. They don’t want to admit fault.”

Ottman said he stands to receive approximately $40,000 in back pay under a 30 percent disability rating schedule.

Photo contributed

DELAYED: Ottman says he has found nothing has changed in the VA health care system when it comes to long wait times and the delivery of medical services.

According to the VA, “Compensation may also be paid for post-service disabilities that are considered related or secondary to disabilities occurring in service and for disabilities presumed to be related to circumstances of military service, even though they may arise after service. Generally, the degrees of disability specified are also designed to compensate for considerable loss of working time from exacerbations or illnesses.”

‘Frustrating process’

Last year, Ottman said things got so bad he wasn’t able to eat. He was losing weight again. A service representative in Portage County advised him to file for an appeal because it “seems odd that they gave you a zero-percent rating.”

He met with a private provider. Ottman was told what he already felt: His esophageal wrap was too tight again. He went through another round of dilation again, and once more he instantly felt better. It was a mixed blessing.

Ottman said an examining physician at the Tomah VA Medical Center perfunctorily looked at his file notes and determined he was fine, which made sense: He had just had the procedure that temporarily improved his condition. The physician, Ottman said, did not take into account his medical history.

“At that point, it wasn’t bothering me. In 18 months it will be,” the veteran said.

Worse still, according to Ottman, he was never informed that he was denied disability compensation for his chronic esophageal issues. No letter. No phone call. No email. No text. But his online files note that a notification letter was sent. Ottman said he never received it. Strange, he said. He’d never missed a VA letter before.

He found out too late that he had 60 days to appeal the ruling.

“From my understanding, the only route left to me is to go back in and rebuild the case from scratch with new evidence,” Ottman said. “It’s a very frustrating process. It seems like there is so little communication and follow through on their side.  I have the proper paperwork showing moderate esophageal stricture. You look at the rating guide, it’s the same rating.”

Tomah VA spokesman Matthew Gowan said he could not speak to Ottman’s case unless he received permission from the patient. Ottman said he granted disclosure permission on Friday. Gowan on Wednesday claimed that he hadn’t received the proper signature from Ottman to “ensure that I’m protecting the veteran’s rights under HIPPA and Privacy Act every single step of the way.” Ottman said he digitally signed the form, including his Social Security number, but Gowan insisted on a “wet signature.”

Ottman said Gowan’s office instructed someone from the psychiatric department at Tomah to call him “because from the information he was given I was having an issue that needed to be addressed.” Ottman said he explained that the matter was about his disability claim and appeal and the staff member said that he was told Ottman was having “concerns with a mental health issue.”

Song remains the same

Beyond the battles over disability compensation, Ottman said he has been subjected to what so many of his veteran brethren have endured: long delays.

In one scheduling tilt-a-whirl, Ottman said he was told he would have to wait weeks just to schedule an appointment with a VA psychiatrist for the first available opening – three months later.

Despite the media coverage, public pressure and assurances from the VA that wait times are improving, Ottman said, from his experience and other veterans he knows, they are not. From initial examination to test to procedure, he said, it can take a year to move through the VA health care system.

Kevin Nicholson, a decorated veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, says the song remains the same for the bloated government bureaucracy that is the VA health care system.

Photo by Tomah VA Medical Center

TROUBLES CONTINUE: Veterans tell Wisconsin Watchdog that they continue to experience problems with health services at the troubled Tomah VA Medical Center.

Nicholson, a member of the Wisconsin Board of Veterans Affairs, worked alongside the EOD and ammunition teams under his command. He said the life-and-death pressure the bomb squad teams deal with is unimaginable to the average person. What veterans must go through to receive disability benefits is a stress that only a “gargantuan” government agency could create, he added.

“It can take several months, if not years, for them to hand down their decision,” Nicholson said, noting that a veteran needs an advocate with knowledge of the system’s intricacies in order to expedite the process. “What’s nonsensical is that’s expected. You need an outside advocate to advocate for you.”

The average wait time to evaluate a claim was 277 days in 2012, according to a Center for Investigative Reporting investigation. The VA has reported “slow but measurable progress” in reducing the backlog.

Nicholson, a Milwaukee-area conservative considering a run for U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s Senate seat in next year’s election, said there is “no fixing” a VA system that is “so broken from top to bottom.”

“The thing needs to be dismantled, starting from the ground up,” he said. “More than any other federal agency that exists, this one has so many consistent and life-altering mistakes.”

The Tomah VA Medical Center has been trying to heal since early 2015, when it was first reported that the health care complex had been dubbed “Candyland” because of the opioid overprescription practices of its disgraced former chief of staff. A U.S. Senate committee report last year found the medical facility was sickened by a “culture of fear” that lead to the death of at least one veteran and retaliation against the whistleblowers who first raised red flags.

Ottman said he sees a disconnect with old promises and political priorities.

“You see all this legislation coming down about refugee cities trying to help all of these people who are not even citizens of our country, the people we fought against in some instances,” the war veteran said. “Our nation wants to take care of these people, but not us.”

He hopes his story will help shine some light on the myriad problems in the VA system.

“Even though my situation may not be the most severe, hopefully if people are going through what I have dealt with or worse, this gives them hope that there are other roads they can take,” Ottman said.

Part of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal
  1. After damaging silence, Baldwin now calls for probe of troubled VA center
  2. Legal expert says U.S. Sen Tammy Baldwin is in full ‘damage control’
  3. Baldwin aide breaks silence, alleges senator engaged in ‘coverup’
  4. Baldwin’s public relations team kicks into high gear following ethics complaint
  5. Ethics watchdog urges Senate committee to investigate Baldwin
  6. Tammy Baldwin’s political fixer is helping Hillary attack voter ID
  7. Senate committee asking if FBI missed the call in veteran’s death at VA
  8. When lawmakers failed Wisconsin’s veterans
  9. Is political pressure behind Lin Ellinghuysen’s differing accounts on VA memo?
  10. Bernie Sanders failed to act in deadly VA scandal, whistleblower says
  11. Does government union chief’s threat show AFGE’s hand on veterans care?
  12. What would Russ Feingold’s 1992 self say to the 2015 version?
  13. Ad attacking Feingold asserts veterans died because of ‘politicians who looked the other way’
  14. Feingold’s campaign caught up in VA scandal memo war
  15. PolitiFact Wisconsin trusts Russ Feingold to deliver its facts
  16. Sources: Ron Kind received call from Jason Simcakoski not long before Marine’s tragic death
  17. Captain Campaign Finance Reform, Russ Feingold, changes ‘dark money’ tune
  18. Baldwin talks transparency while keeping her secrets in Tomah VA scandal
  19. Ron Kind knew about Tomah VA abuse years before the story broke
  20. Ron Kind now solving Tomah VA scandal one press release at a time
  21. Tammy Baldwin silent on her failures as she blasts Tomah VA medical center
  22. Tomah VA whistleblower says he’s getting pressure from unhappy Dems
  23. Feingold’s facts fail again in face of Tomah scandal
  24. Senate field hearing to shine more light on Tomah VA scandal
  25. Tomah VA supervisor accused of misconduct gets promoted
  26. Senate hearing to look deeper into scandal-plagued Tomah VA hospital
  27. Kind flees questions, Senate committee turns up heat on Tomah VA hospital scandal
  28. Report: Tomah VA hospital story is one of ‘systemic failures’
  29. Tomah VA hospital whistleblower: ‘It will not change’
  30. Ron Kind breaks silence on call from veteran victim at Tomah VA hospital
  31. VA union holds rally to save itself, Tomah whistleblower says
  32. Sound familiar? Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth accused of retaliation at VA
  33. Emails say Tomah VA patient reached out to Feingold, Kind, in 2008 about abuse
  34. Johnson: Hold accountable those who put Tomah veterans at risk of HIV, hepatitis
  35. Veteran jumps out of third-floor window at Tomah VA hospital
  36. Tomah VA employee: ‘We have forgotten who we work for’
  37. Congressional committees want answers on Tomah VA hospital
  38. Senators ask Pence, Trump transition team, to hold troubled VA accountable
  39. Veterans advocate: VA hospitals’ ‘improvement’ doesn’t tell whole story
  40. Tomah VA Medical Center’s ‘Candy Man’ stripped of license
  41. Opinions differ on whether it’s ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ at Tomah VA
  42. Latest data show Tomah VA hospital improving in opioid prescriptions, veteran satisfaction
  43. VA secretary nominee faces little resistance, lots of challenges
  44. Insiders: Tomah VA troubles continue with nurse shortage, neglectful care
  45. VA whistleblower has questions for Congressman Ron Kind
  46. Johnson brings back whistleblower protection bill as Sunshine Week opens
  47. Iraq war veteran burned by ‘very frustrating process’ at VA

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M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.