Thursday, December 27, 2007

Former Marine Now Fights for Vets

Buffalo News December 27, 2007

This former Marine refuses to take "no" for an answer when it comes to fighting the battles of disabled veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

She understands just how intimidating the federal bureaucracy can be for a veteran in need of help. Her military career was cut short when she fractured her back and neck in a training drill.
That experience, more than a decade ago, laid the groundwork for a new vocation in life that has made her one of New York State's busiest veteran counselors.

"I don't take 'no' for an answer. There is no 'no.' If I get 'no' for an answer, I go at it a different way," said Tracy R. Kinn, who works for the state's Division of Veterans Affairs.
Veterans with head injuries or psychological wounds might not be in the best position to pore over some 5,000 pages of government disability regulations and then write up a claim, but the word is out that Kinn gets results.

Army Reservist Michael Hynes was on the verge of losing his house in Buffalo when he went to Kinn for help.

He had undergone surgery for an injury he suffered while serving in Afghanistan and was on an extended recuperation when his sick time ran out at his civilian job.

"When she represents you, the way she works at it, you'd think it was her own case. She puts that much into it," Hynes said. "My wife and children and I are forever grateful to her."
The disability claim Kinn filed on Hynes' behalf was approved by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and he received retroactive payments that put him back on solid financial ground.

And while Kinn was at it, Hynes added, she connected him with additional medical services through the Buffalo VA.

"She made sure I got the right medical treatment," Hynes said.

It's not hard to find others in similar struggles, veterans who were on the brink of financial ruin or already there. They talk of losing their homes or, if they were lucky enough, taking out a second mortgage to tide them over until benefits came through.

A busy caseload
As many as 40 veterans a week come to Kinn's office looking for help, and they are more than willing to publicly acknowledge her efforts.

"She deserves a medal. She really fights to get vets what they've earned," said Eddy Delmonte, a disabled Iraq veteran from Hamburg, who left the Army in 2006 and was unable to hold down a job because of head, back and psychological injuries.

The Army, Delmonte said, ruled that he was 10 percent disabled. By the time Kinn finished with his case, Delmonte was declared unemployable and now receives a $2,600-a-month VA disability pension.

Kinn says part of her success comes from keeping disability claims simple. The thicker a file grows, she said, the less likely it is to get approved.

"I put the VA law to work for them, and I discourage appeals. If you didn't win the claim in Buffalo, you're not going to win with the VA in Washington, D.C.," Kinn said. "But there's always a way to make the law work." Veterans, she said, sometimes file their own claims and end up denied because they do not understand how the laws apply to their specific cases.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, she said, does not have enough manpower to work with the veterans in managing the claim- filing process because of the overwhelming numbers of veterans.

It's estimated that more than 1.5 million members of the armed forces have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and half are now discharged, with just under 30,000 of them living in New York State.

For those in need of veteran services, documentation is crucial.

When preparing a claim, Kinn said she makes sure there is a current medical diagnosis to confirm the disability and proof that treatment occurred during active duty.
But it is not always that simple. Sometimes there is no active- duty documentation or the injury is not immediately evident, such as in cases of post-traumatic stress.

In those situations, the veterans give detailed accounts of the "stressors" they suffered while on active duty. War-related deaths, suicides and other tragic consequences of war often fill the written narrations.

Occasionally they are so painful that Kinn says she can barely get through them without crying. She is not the only one shedding tears. Veterans will sit in her office and sob as they tell of not being able to reclaim their past lives. Their problems include domestic violence and broken marriages, often caused by war-related mental health issues.

Career cut short
To keep a balanced perspective, Kinn says she often reminds herself that it is a privilege to serve those who have defended the country -- a task she cherished as a Marine.

Kinn said she was gung-ho in her desire to protect her country, but her military career was cut short when she fell during practice drills at Camp Lejeune, N.C., climbing up a ship's cargo net. She fractured her neck and back.

That experience gave her an insider's understanding of what veterans experience when applying for help.

"That thrust me into the VA system. It was frustrating. I chased my tail like the vets I'm helping. I didn't know how to file an appeal," the 40-year-old Derby resident said.
But by the time she was finished, Kinn had obtained a VA mortgage and education benefits that helped her get a college degree to teach. She later discovered that was not the career for her and six years ago became a veteran counselor.

Her job goes beyond the eight-hour workday.

"My husband and I will be out to dinner, and he'll be talking to a veteran and ask me to 'help this guy,' " said Kinn, adding that she never turns down a veteran in need.

Officials in charge of the state's Division of Veterans Affairs say they are well aware of the large volume of work produced by Kinn, who has a staff of one -- Sue Eddy, her secretary.

"First and foremost is, she cares. She is a person who in her heart wants to do this well," said James D. McDonough, the state director of veterans affairs. "The people she comes in contact with have a great deal of respect for her."

It's no wonder. When veterans leave Kinn's office, she says, she does a few things. She thanks them for their military service. She gives them a hug. And she hands them two of her business cards.

"One is for them and the other is to pay it forward," Kinn said, referring to the title of a popular movie about inspiring good deeds.

Her hope is that if the veterans are pleased with the help they've received, maybe they will pass her card along to yet another veteran in need.

"Sometimes they'll even go out and rent the movie 'Pay It Forward,' " said Kinn, a smile spreading across her face.

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