Sunday, December 13, 2009

An Open Letter to the President for my Mom and Widows of Veterans

Jesse Kent

Law Offices of Norm Kent
110 Southeast 6th Street Suite 1970
Fort Lauderdale, Fl 33301
954 763 1900

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C,

Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Eric K. Shinseki
810 Vermont Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20420

Dear Concerned Public Servants,

My name is Norm Kent. I am an attorney in Fort Lauderdale, writing on behalf of my mother, Gertrude, living in a nursing home in Sunrise, Florida. She is a surviving spouse of a veteran, a soldier, and an American hero who fought overseas to defend freedom here at home.

On or about February of this year, I processed an application for Widow’s Pension Benefits on behalf of Mom. My dad, Jesse Kent, served bravely during World War II, in the 376th Infantry, and rose from the rank of Private First Class to Staff Sergeant, up through his discharge at the Separation Center in Fort Dix on August 31, 1945. I have enclosed Dad’s picture when he was in the service overseas for you to see. I keep it hanging in my office.

When my dad came home from combat duty overseas in Europe, from various battles in numeorus theaters to landing on Utah Beach with the Fighting 94th during D Day operations, his first son, and my older brother- Richard, had already been born. Dad served admirably, and as a member of the Antitank Company, was even awarded an Honorary Certificate of Service for exemplary conduct against the German forces on the battlefield in Germany, early in 1945. It was awarded to him by Captain Frederick Bucky, Jr., the Infantry Adjutant.

Dad would often tell us stories of combat operations, and what it was like to be a soldier living in a field on 'Creamed Chipped Beef'; how he wanted to make it home to see his son. He did, and he raised three of them, who survive him today.

My brothers, Alan and Richard, and me, well, we are most proud of our Dad for having earned the Bronze Star Medal on February 4, 1944 for meritorious achievement in ground operations against the enemy in the European Theater of Operations, during the Rhineland Campaign,. It was awarded by the President of the United States of America. That star, and the plaque evidencing it, also hangs proudly in my office. These are the memories of my dad, who passed away too young, in July of 1987, only 72 years of age.

Do me a favor. As you respond to my letter, think of my dad, won’t you? And think of his widow, my mom, in a nursing home, turning 88 years old last week. My family, including my older brother Richard, who was born in 1944 while Dad was still fighting overseas, celebrated Thanksgiving with her just a few weeks ago.

When I visit my Dad at his gravesite next week, for the Holidays, when I wheel my mom to his stone in her wheelchair, please tell me how I can explain to him why it has taken the United States of America over ten months to process his widow’s claim for a pension benefit.

You see, on October 1st of this year, after waiting eight months, I received a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs that you had in fact acquired everything you needed to process the claim, but remarkably, the correspondence stated the claim could not go forward because my dad’s death certificate did not sufficiently indicate the cause of his death.

Dutifully, as a good citizen, trying to accommodate the bureaucracy that is our government- and the rules that are so particularized they are virtually insane, I rushed out to the Bureau of Vital Statistics and swiftly re-sent an updated death certificate within a week. Apparently, it got there too fast for you, because two months have now passed, and today, on December 17, I received the following note from the VA in Philadelphia:

We are still processing your application for PENSION. We apologize for the delay.”

You said the same thing to me on April 9 of this year:

“It is our sincere desire to decide your case promptly. However, we have a great number of claims, so action on yours may be delayed.”

I wish you all a Happy Holidays, of course. I hope you enjoy this time with your family and friends. But I am here to tell you I do not accept your apology, and I find your delays offensive and unacceptable. It should not take 65 days for the widow of a United States veteran who put his life at risk for this country 65 years ago to collect the benefits she is lawfully entitled to, let alone over ten months. So NO, then, I DO NOT accept your apology.

An America that cared more about its veterans would consider and care more for the elderly women who survived them; many of whom do not have sons who are lawyers- able to help them find marriage certificates from 75 years ago, discharge papers from 65 years ago, or death certificates from 25 or 30 years ago. First, the process you employ for citizens to gain rights they should already have is inexcusably delayed. Second, that difficulty is compounded by an arduous road of paperwork requirements for so many who are so unable.

I was fascinated to learn that there are private for profit financial service companies that aid those who cannot help themselves; that instead of our government reaching out, there are profiteers taking away. This is their right to work for a profit to serve a public need. But if we had a government that was serving public needs companies like this would not need to exist. Somehow I just don't think that our soldiers who lose their lives overseas in battles for our freedoms ever anticipated that their widows would have to cut checks to private companies to process benefit applications. I don't think it was the last thing on their mind as they took a bullet for the red, white, and blue.

My Dad was very proud of the country he served and the life he lived. He would not be so proud of the legacy you are leaving his wife and thousands of other widows who are told up front when they apply for relief for benefits from the Human Services Department the wait is long and the delays great; that is ‘just the way it is.’ That is the way it must not be.

For too long too many of our citizens have accepted the apathy without challenging it. But that is not the way my dad and hundreds of thousands of other veterans helped us win a war. They did not just lie down and take it. So do me a favor, just mark down in your books that I will not join the list of those who quietly acquiesce to administrative neglect and inexhaustible delays as routine practice. I will prosecute my mom’s rights with the same zeal and energy that my dad, her husband, fought for this country. I will not lie down and look the other way at indifference.

Finally, let me say I am not trying to threaten anyone to win one case for one woman, who matters an awful lot to me. I am trying to send a message and press a claim that the program you are administering is a colossal embarrassment to the citizens of the United States and the persons it is intended to serve. Ten months? Please! It speaks for itself. You need to do better.

You see, you are still asking soldiers to fight and die for our country, in wars and battles that are far more questionable then World War II. Your decisions are making new widows who also will one day have to negotiate these elaborate requirements for dependency and disability. Can we do something today to make it easier on them tomorrow? As long as you are sending soldiers to battle, will you consider those who they are leaving behind?


Norm Kent