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Disabled vet helps clear VA backlog

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SPRING HILL, FL (WFLA) -

There is no simple solution to resolving the massive backlog of disability claims now facing the Department of Veterans Affairs, but in a tiny office in Spring Hill one disabled vet named Deron Mikal is doing his best to craft solutions, one case at a time.

"I think the VA can be the best friend you have," said Mikal.

He should know. Mikal, age 79, has his own 100% VA disability rating from the cold injuries he suffered while installing radar defenses north of the Arctic Circle during the Cold War years.

He's also processed an estimated 26,000 VA claims during ten years as a state-paid VA service representative and another ten as a volunteer vet helping other vets.

Local veterans, and in one case a vet who lives in Panama, flock to his office through word of mouth referrals from other vets, hoping he will help them slash through the red tape and bureaucracy of the VA claims process.

"They seek him out, they find him," said disabled veteran John Mari.

"I heard he was one of the ten best in the United States and number one in the State of Florida," said disabled Vietnam Veteran John Voltaggio.

Mikal said he doesn't blame the VA administration for the backlog of claims because paid workers there are overwhelmed and often inexperienced in the system.

"They're under pressure and their claims are stacked to the ceiling," said Mikal.

It would have to be a very tall ceiling.

  • Nationwide there were 896,861 claims pending as of March 9
  • 70.5% of them were officially backlogged because they had been pending more than 125 days.

The St. Petersburg region, with more than 49,000 pending claims and almost 21,000 pending appeals, is the busiest in the nation. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki tried to address that problem in a letter he wrote to Florida Congresswoman Kathy Castor in late January.

"The St. Petersburg Regional Office (RO) has approximately 6 percent of the national pending workload," Shinseki wrote. "We are committed to, and actively pursuing, comprehensive improvements to the systems Veterans use to access benefits and services."

Shinseki's letter—which includes six pages of explanation about the improvements underway in the VA system—came after Castor wrote to him requesting "an immediate plan of action to reduce the St. Petersburg VA backlog."

The VA Secretary says his agency is changing its business model, retraining workers and applying new technology to battle the backlog and process new claims that have poured in at the rate of more than a million a year for the past three years.

Deron Mikal isn't involved with fixing any of that, but in his own modest way he's helping disabled veterans who crowd into his tiny office three days a week for consultation and relief.

"This is a three legged thing," Mikal said he tells the vets. "I'm going to tie one leg to your leg and we're going to walk this thing through all the way to the finish."

"Deron's done a wonderful job on my case," said Mari, age 81. Mari fought and froze in Korea 60 years ago, but still suffers medical issues, flashbacks and PTSD from his days in combat.

"I suffered with that [PTSD] for a long time and I figured I'd just live with it," Mari said.

Mikal uses a system of outside doctors and personalized claims he developed over the years to help Mari and other vets receive the benefits they should have received long ago. "I admire the guy," said Mari. "I think he's a great man."

That kind of praise—which disabled veterans heap on him in regular doses—embarrasses Mikal because he doesn't consider himself a miracle worker, just an experienced hand who understands how the VA system works and how to work the system.

"It's like a soccer field. I know where the goal line is," said Mikal. "We'll kick the ball a little bit and so we'll keep doing that and catch the VA's attention."

"The difference is he's proactive," said Paul Ouellette, a member of the Disabled American Veterans organization and a volunteer protégé of Mikal. "He doesn't let the claim sit. He pushes and pushes and pushes it."

Mikal also has a gift for connecting a diagnosis from one of the private doctors in his network of resources with the story of disabled veterans' military service in every conflict since WWII. He credits his past profession as a newspaperman for developing those narratives.

 "If you were in the Ardennes campaign—that was the Battle of the Bulge, it was the coldest winter on record," Mikal said. "Cold is another enemy in a combat zone.

He said in Vietnam, high casualty rates from Viet Cong guerilla attacks impacted the psyche of surviving soldiers. "They would have bodies lined up the length of the airstrip, said Mikal. "Our bodies to bring back home in C-130's.

And in Iraq, Mikal says this generation's combat troops suffered in other ways. "I can talk about Fallujah in 2004," Mikal said. "It was crazy. Hotels were blown up. American lives were at risk and it was just pure, pure disaster." 

He knows these stories because veterans from all of those conflicts who pack the small office he rents at his own expense on 4169 Lamson Ave. in Spring Hill in Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday every week, tell him.

"Somebody will walk in the office he hasn't seen in six months," said Ouellette. "He knows his name and he knows his story."

Veterans say one of Mikal's secrets of success in avoiding appeals on the VA claims he helps file comes through the personal connection he makes.

"He was an orphan in Cincinnati and I was an orphan in Pennsylvania, "said Mari. "He knows my life story from start to end."

Mikal keeps a donation jar in his office but said he typically pays $500-$600 for rent and office supplies out of his own pocket.

His office is crammed with military memorabilia, books and bathed in soft lighting with soft couches to relax in. It looks more like a comfy den than a claims processing center. "This is a home to them," said Mikal

Mikal figures he handles as many as 130 claims a month and plans to eventually pass the torch to his 73-year-old protégé who's learning Mikal's system of sending appeal-proof disability claims to the VA, because appeals drag on for years.

"I'm trying to find out what it is that I can learn from him that is going to help me do exactly what he dies," said Ouellette.

Mikal has been assisting disabled vets long enough to understand he's not going to solve the VA's backlog by himself on a back street of Spring Hill.

But that doesn't deter him from trying to help any disabled vet who walks through his door, as so many do.

"I can't conceive of retirement against the tremendous need that is out there," Mikal said. "I'll do this and they all know this--oh my gosh--until I leap into the grave. That's where I am. I don't intend to step away from it.

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