“It’s like being smacked in the face,” Milonas says. “I was very naive. I thought, If I do my job and I do it well, Uncle Sam will take care of me.”
Milonas remembers a VA adviser telling her that claiming sexual trauma would make it easier to get benefits. She replied that she had not suffered sexual trauma. “It’s like, ‘Well, OK, good luck,’ ” she says. She appealed, but the decision was upheld. Kevin bitterly recalls the runaround his wife was given. “They’d say, ‘Oops, you need this.’ ‘Oops, you need that.’ ‘Sorry, you have to reapply.’ I honestly believe they hope you’ll go away.” But she didn’t, and in December 2009 Milonas got approval for her PTSD compensation. She was awarded a lump sum to cover the four years it took to get her claim accepted (four years is the average time it takes to reach a favorable decision, according to the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates), plus an ongoing monthly pension.
Final approval was based on a sergeant’s confirming the drowning-baby incident. His account had been filed with Milonas’s first claim, in October 2005, but had somehow been overlooked. “Ms. Milonas’ case was complicated by the fact that she was not in direct combat,” the VA explained in a letter when I inquired about why her case had taken so long.
“I don’t know how much more direct it has to be, aside from being fired upon,” Milonas says dryly. But she’s gratified. “They’ve taken care of me. I don’t feel like I’m fighting with my own government anymore.”
Last summer the VA approved changes to its claims procedures: Veterans who have served in a war zone no longer have to prove that their PTSD is combat related. The diagnosis has to come from a VA health care professional, who must also confirm that the PTSD is service related.
However, concerns persist that to avoid paying benefits, the military sometimes diagnoses adjustment disorders or pre-existing personality disorders instead of PTSD—even though the service members were considered psychologically healthy by the military upon entering the service. The Department of Defense denies the charges, but in a September 2010 hearing on the subject, Bob Filner, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and a Democratic congressman from California, told his listeners, “I remain extremely concerned that our dedicated service members struggle to get the proper mental health care and support while fighting America’s wars.” VA diagnoses of mental health problems have increased 40 percent in the past six years; as the drawdown of troops escalates and more soldiers come home, many question the VA’s ability to cope with the likely rise in PTSD claims. [NOTE: In May 2011, a federal appeals court ordered a major overhaul of the VA's mental health care system, noting that an average of 18 veterans a day commit suicide.]
ROBIN MILONAS MISSES the military. The walls in her home office are covered with framed citations and awards. Among them are more than 15 ribbons and medals, including a Bronze Star. “Part of it never leaves you,” she says.
A different kind of grouping is displayed in the formal living room, which is dedicated to Milonas’s doll collection. The figures—some black, some white, some even life-size—sit in miniature chairs and lounge on a sofa, their faces beautiful but vacant. “I enjoy taking care of them,” Milonas says.