Disabled Vietnam vet may be ‘falling through the cracks’

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This photo of Steve Narcisse is one of his service time that he proudly displays outside his home at a local nursing home.

VA system laws not the perfect fit for all cases

By Correne Martin

Mainstream opinion is that United States veterans are deserving of the utmost attention when it comes to care and services. However, these vehement matters involve as much “red tape” as most other state and federal programs, making the processes, the benchmarks and the programs in general more complicated to navigate.

Steve Narcisse, a 79-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran from Wauzeka who’s a patient at a Prairie du Chien nursing home, is just one example of a veteran struggling to get everything desired within the veterans affairs (VA) system. The hearing-impaired, minimally-verbal, wartime veteran is of Creole descent and, according to those closest to him, he’s as nice as can be and lived a modest life in the cities of Milwaukee and New Orleans before moving to Crawford County in the mid-2000s.

Narcisse served in the U.S. Army throughout all of Vietnam, noted his power of attorney (POA), Fred Drengberg, also of Wauzeka.

“I served honorably,” Narcisse articulated, in broken speech during an unsuccessful interview attempt.

“His clothes were thick in Agent Orange,” Drengberg stated. “They were spraying him with it and he didn’t have any protection.” He said Narcisse was also in Germany and Thailand during his service time.

The Drengbergs—Fred and his wife Ethel, who was in the USO—have known Narcisse since the mid-1960s, when he worked for IBM in Milwaukee. Narcisse moved to New Orleans in ‘68 and worked for the U.S. Postal Service rebuilding computers.

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Narcisse’s veteran’s service records were ruined in the floods. According to Drengberg, Narcisse ended up stuck in Florida afterward and was given a small efficiency apartment by the government. That’s when some of his friends from Wisconsin went down and brought him back to Wauzeka, where he purchased a home on Front Street. There, he lived for under 10 years before his health started deteriorating more significantly. Ethel Drengberg was Narcisse’s POA until she passed away a year ago, and now Fred serves in that capacity, because he doesn’t have any close family connections.

Finally, in January 2016, due to Narcisse’s worsening disabilities, as well as the Drengbergs’ inability to care for his personal health needs, he was placed into skilled nursing care.

In his power of attorney’s eyes, Narcisse is an American veteran who was exposed to Agent Orange “poison” while serving his country. He spends most of his days reclined in a wheelchair, cared for by a local skilled nursing home that doesn’t specialize in veteran care. His assets are very little.

“Every month, he falls behind $500 to $1,000 and, though his house in Wauzeka could be sold, it would be a total loss,” Drengberg said, sharing his concerns that the nursing home needs to be paid. He further explained that Narcisse has a small amount of income from his Social Security pension, disability compensation and a minor real estate investment, but it’s not enough to pay for his care.

“It would be enough if the VA would bump [up his service-connected disability compensation percentage],” Drengberg declared. He said he’d like to get Narcisse into the Tomah VA Medical Center.

As his POA, Drengberg has sought help through the Crawford County Veterans Service Office and Congressman Ron Kind’s office. He feels he’s received limited hope for his friend’s future.

“The system is walking away from a disabled veteran,” Drengberg said. “Too many of our veterans are just falling through the cracks.”

But that’s not exactly the case, according to Laura Moore, Crawford County Veterans Service officer. Though she couldn’t speak specifically about Narcisse’s situation because of confidentiality, she talked in general about what roadblocks all veterans face.

“Extenuating circumstances may come in to play for any veteran,” Moore said, stating that every veteran could potentially be eligible for a number of benefits, but it is based on their service. A veteran would have to apply for benefits that he feels he is qualified to receive, and the VA makes the determination based on that application.

“Just because someone is a veteran does not mean that they have access to every benefit that is out there,” Moore said. “I am a veteran but I do not qualify to use the VA medical facilities due to various qualifications for that benefit.”

Moore said service-connected disability requires that the veteran prove the current disability they are claiming is related to their service or based on presumptive conditions such as those related to exposure to Agent Orange and radiation. She said non-service connected pension does not require that a veteran’s disabilities be due to their service but they have to meet income and asset guidelines that are also determined through an application process.

Moore stated that she can always look into every possible benefit for all veterans who seek assistance through her office.

“Knowing the intricacies of the VA is important. It is a system, not an insurance,” Moore said, noting that veterans must opt in to a number of the programs, as benefits aren’t automatic. “Every veteran has a unique situation, and it’s not that we don’t care. It’s just that, unfortunately, there are always cracks.”

For Drengberg, the response Narcisse has received by the “system” is simply not enough: “I would like to see the VA pay for his care like he expects them to be doing. He’s earned it but he can’t put up the fight.”

Moore and her administrative assistant, Cindy Jelinek, are more than willing to help veterans navigate the system and realize what’s available to them, from drug and alcohol rehabilitation and homeless and suicide prevention programs to income eligibility and other benefits. Moore said she’s also hoping to get the Veterans Outreach and Recovery Program (VORP) to start staffing office hours in Crawford County, within her office.

“Right now, it stops at the Vernon County line. We want to offer them office space in exchange for them to bring mental health and housing assistance to our county,” Moore said.

Currently, at the veterans service office in the Crawford County Administration Building, suite 137, veterans are welcome to ask all kinds of questions, discuss their service, access resources, fill out forms by hand or online, etc. A new library has been added to the office where veterans can consult a variety of materials or utilize the computer and internet to complete paperwork. Area veterans are encouraged to stop in or call 326-0204, Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

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