Marc McCabe, bureau chief and chief service officer of Vietnam Veterans of America in St. Petersburg, helps people throughout Florida, Georgia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico get disability benefits every year. Under a special grant partnership with the Seminole Tribe, McCabe provides assistance and guidance on benefits for the Tribe’s veterans and Tribal employees who are veterans. He visits the Brighton and Hollywood reservations monthly. His services, through the grant, even extend to helping people in towns near Brighton.
A Vietnam War veteran himself, McCabe has worked diligently since 2005 to advocate for veterans. His cases, which are done at no cost to the recipients, have helped veterans, their spouses and their children in South Florida get the disability compensation they deserve from injuries and illnesses obtained during service.
The Tribune talked to McCabe to find out more about his position and his passion for helping fellow veterans.
What made you want to get involved with the VA?
I was transitioning as the veteran coordinator for the United States Marine Corps in Camp Pendleton, stationed at Tripler, Hawaii and that job required me to help the servicemen and veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan transition into civilian hospitals. My boss at the time said to me that he’d like for me to go back to the veterans law program at Georgetown to assist veterans get their benefits. It was really more of a request than a desire. I did that and took on the job in 2005. I was the bureau chief in Chicago in the original office there, was in San Francisco at the Oakland office, I worked at the Palo Alto trauma center. In 2010, they requested I move to Florida and take on a Florida case because they didn’t have anybody down here to take care of the veterans. So I started coming down to the Tribe in Okeechobee and Brighton in 2011 to start taking care of just the Seminole veterans. Once we got most of the Seminole veterans rated with veteran’s disabilities, the [Tribal]Council asked me if I would be willing to take on the Seminole employee veterans. So I said sure because there’s no sense in not taking care of them.
We started seeing all the Seminole employee veterans and then two, three years later the Council came back to me and said they’d like to give back to their neighbors. Brighton is a rural area and the VA doesn’t have an outreach program there, so they asked me if I’d be willing to see veterans from surrounding counties and I said sure.
It basically started off that we would see two or three veterans a day and now when we go to Brighton we see about 70 veterans because they come from all around; they come from as far away as Sebring, Stewart and Clewiston. Then they said since you’re doing that, why don’t you come over to Hollywood. This was fine and I had no problem with it so we started coming one day a month to Hollywood. …We have a room set up here. My counterpart Elaine Westermeyer sees people here too. If [the veteran] has a crucial point or a sensitive issue like a military sexual trauma, we’ll separate that person and take them somewhere quieter and hold the interview to see how we can assist them and do the claims for them.
Where do you visit veterans in South Florida?
We do Brighton and Hollywood. The Tribe sends out a tribal-wide announcement that we’re going to come over. We don’t take appointments [in Hollywood], it’s a free walk-in; however, we do say that Tribal members get ahead of the line privileges. In Brighton we do take reservations because we get there at 7:30, 8 a.m. and we won’t leave until everyone is seen. We come every month and it’s a three-day trip for us. It’s because the rural, elderly, minority veterans that we’re treating that the VA doesn’t quite do a great job of outreaching to. That’s why we advocate for the veterans. In Okeechobee, they have a VA clinic and a county officer who’s supposed to take care of veterans but they don’t do anything. We’ve had instances where the people will just give veterans a piece of paper and say ‘Here, fill this out’ without even talking to them. They don’t talk to them. They don’t try to delve into the issues as to what else has happened to them. For example, one of the veterans we had at the Miccosukee reservation who came to see us and he just wanted to put in a request for diabetes. I was looking at him and he had a golf shirt on so I could see this zipper on his chest. So I asked if he had heart surgery and he said, ‘Yeah, I had four stunts.’ He’s a Vietnam veteran and we have 18 presumptive illnesses for Vietnam veterans that were exposed to Agent Orange and he didn’t realize that. So instead of getting 20 percent disability, he ended up getting 100 percent disability all because he came out to Brighton. That’s happened to a lot of veterans – they don’t know the benefits.
I’m on the national committee for toxic exposures during time of war and we talk about Agent Orange during Vietnam and the depleted uranium and the oil pits and the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are presumptive illnesses for both of those. The children that are being born with defects and illnesses, a lot of people don’t know they can get benefits for. That’s my job to go out there and inform the population; the VA doesn’t do that. … With the funding I get from the Seminole Tribe, we do town hall meetings throughout Florida to let people know and we found several veterans that have the same illnesses but never filed a claim because nobody came out to do outreach.
… When we find them, we sign them up for disability and ask them what happened to them in the service. As long as it’s not willful misconduct, it can be service connected and we can draw a disability payment. The presumptive illnesses are really simple for Vietnam era. The people that served in Vietnam were exposed to Agent Orange and the presumptive illnesses are mostly cancer. There are also birth defects to children because Agent Orange was a DNA inhibitor and stopped the reproduction cycle, which is why all these children were born with defects. That’s why we had so many children born with serious illnesses like spina bifida to heart congenital issues to having to be in wheelchairs. They draw disability and their healthcare is covered. In 2012 we did our first town hall meeting in Brighton and we found that one of the Seminole daughters had spina bifida and the VA denied her. I took on the case and went to Denver and won the case so we got her benefits and the Tribe was reimbursed for all the money they had paid over the years. It’s a good working partnership.
Do you handle primarily disability benefits or all benefits?
My expertise is in disability benefits for the VA. If they want to do home loans or educational issues, we’ll give them the point of contacts and tell them the basics.
How do you find the VA is different in rural communities compared to more urban areas?
In rural areas we have more store front clinics – they’re in a strip mall or just really small – and it’s hard to attract the top doctors and nurses to come to small towns. We have a tough enough job getting doctors into bigger hospitals. It takes about a year to vet somebody security-wise. If one doctor quits, it can take up to a year to replace them. If they quit in a small town like Brighton or even Sebring, which is not as small as Brighton, it takes a while to replace a doctor and then the veteran who lives in that community may have to travel another hour or two hours to find a better provider. They’re doing better but they have a long way to go.
How have you seen veteran services change over the years – federally and locally?
With the cutbacks, if it weren’t for the Seminole Tribe funding my office we wouldn’t be coming to Brighton or Hollywood because the government has cut back a lot of programs and a lot of programs are outreach. The outreach isn’t what it used to be 15 years ago. They have staff called outreach coordinators, but that’s all they are, coordinators. We do have some outreach people, like in St. Petersburg we have three but they handle the entire state of Florida, which is a very large state. … You can’t travel everywhere and do everything for everybody, so some places don’t get the personalized treatment that other places do. Luckily for the veterans and the communities that we come to during this outreach, the only reason we’re able to do it is because of the Seminole Tribal Council graciously allowing us to do it.
Right now we average about $7.2 million a month [in the state] that we recover for the veterans that we represent. In a year that’s $86 million and all that money stays right here in the community. About half of the business I do is with Tribal members and Seminole Tribal employees.
Why do you think it’s important to take care of veterans?
We can’t send our people to war and not be there to protect them when they come home.
When the Vietnam veterans originally came home, the VA didn’t like them because it was an unpopular war – it was a TV media war. … The Vietnam veterans took a brunt of the criticism and the VA looked at them like less than honorable type of people. It’s a sad thing to say but that’s exactly what happened. When the Iraqi veterans came home they were hailed as the next greatest generation so they got benefits a lot faster and were looked upon as better people. It’s a perception we have to try to change for Vietnam veterans. When they came home the VFW didn’t like them because they said they lost the war, so a lot of them didn’t join. So the benefits were hard to get so Vietnam Veterans of America, which I represent, we fought the VA and hold them accountable to make sure benefits are better for newer veterans than what we got. … Our motto is ‘never again should one generation of veterans abandon another generation of veterans.’ It works in theory and it works in practice when you hold the VVA accountable.
Are there any particular cases or accomplishments you’ve made that resonate with you?
Cases like the Seminole family that had the daughter in the wheelchair and we finally got her totally granted and her dad taken care of, that was really an emotional issue. The Seminole warriors are very proud individuals.
We’re [veterans] not asking for a handout, we’re asking for earned benefits that we deserve for serving our country. … Those things make it more memorable, when we get a veteran who’s been struggling emotionally, mentally, physically, financially to get a quality of life.
… A year ago I represented a POW [prisoner of war] who spent 56 months in Hanoi Hilton, a prison camp in Vietnam. He was never granted 100 percent and he never medically retired. He was only rated at 30 percent, but we got it to where he’s 100 percent now. To see him and his wife, they get to go on trips now and enjoy life and do things they were never able to do before … those things resonate with me. I’m a Vietnam veteran, a combat veteran, and my dad was a career military person killed in Vietnam, both of my brothers are combat pilots, so when you see all that you know you’ve done all you can do.
What changes would you want to see in how the VA handles veterans?
The advocacy program is solid. The ones that are congressionally chartered report to the Office of the General Counsel of the VA in the United States so we have strict rules and regulations we have to follow or we lose our accreditation. The advocacy program is pretty good, the only thing I would say is that we do outreach where not all advocates do outreach and I think they need to do more of that now, especially with the cutbacks. We’re finding veterans that got screwed by going to the county because the county didn’t know the rules. The county service officers are not trained like advocates who work for a congressionally chartered organization; they just graduated from high school or college and got a job with the county that said they’d be the county service officer. Then they go to this program that the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs puts on for training and go to Cocoa Beach for three days where the department gives them a test upfront with the answers. I’m a proponent against open book exams; it’s like having a cardiologist using a book to know how to do an open heart bypass. Training is a vital issue. Sometimes I think the best thing for the VA is to blow it up and start all over again. It’s a little radical but we have issues now with how we’re taking care of our veterans. We don’t’ have as many doctors or nurses, we’re short-staffed on specialists. … Nowadays 20 to 24 percent of combat veterans that come home are females. They have their own issues too. The VA isn’t prepared for OBGYN issues and if you’re a female veteran, you’re probably going to have some of those issues. They’re trying; they just need to try a little more.
If you had a single message you’d want Tribal veterans to know about what you do, what would that be?
Come to our town hall meetings. We’ve had two town halls in Okeechobee on the Brighton reservation and I think more than 200 people showed up. If you’re a Tribal veteran, come see me and file your benefits. … You have a lot of benefits – healthcare, housing, VA loans that you don’t have to put anything down. We need to get people to come in and do outreach to make sure that veterans understand what’s available.
Come talk to us. The only stupid question is the one you don’t ask. Without opening up, we don’t know what’s going on.
Town hall meetings will be held throughout South Florida in May, June and July. Tribal-wide emails will be sent with the dates. For questions about town halls or to find out what days Marc McCabe will be on the reservations, contact Cydney Reynolds, Veterans Affairs administrative assistant, firstname.lastname@example.org.