Mississippi Veterans Affairs steps in after federal VA failed veteran
GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - Homeless and diagnosed with cancer, Timothy Holliman was running out of options.
He had gone to the Veterans Administration, but a paperwork snafu had left him without benefits, despite serving for nine years.
He shared his story with WLOX News Now in hopes of finding a solution.
“I’m banging my head against the wall because I can’t get no straight answers,” Holliman said in the shade of a gutted hotel on Highway 49 two weeks ago. He was sitting in his car with his fiancé Shirli Nalley and his fledgling service dog Poncho Villa.
He has been fighting the battle for seven years, but the federal bureaucracy that is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs could not see past a less than honorable discharge that Holliman insisted was not deserved.
A soldier’s story
Timothy Holliman Jr., 44, served two stints in the military with the National Guard and Reserves beginning in 1998. The first stint lasted seven years. He served in multiple units.
“Any time a school come up, I volunteered for it because I figured the more I could learn, the better I could serve, not only myself but my country,” he said.
He was one of those soldiers that would be assigned to a unit that needed an extra man with his skills.
“I’ve been in Iraq, Afghanistan, a few other places. Lost some friends in combat. It’s been pretty hard, but I live with it.”
Adjusting to civilian life after serving in combat can be difficult, especially for those in the Guard and Reserve.
“PTSD, depression, anxiety, insomnia and a few other things to go along with it,” he said in a casual tone that only another veteran would understand.
After serving with the 1108th Aviation Group in Fort Knox, Kentucky, he suffered a mild heart attack while on leave and was unable to return.
“They said don’t worry about it, you’re National Guard, we’ll discharge you at home”
Instead, Holliman was inadvertently reassigned to an active-duty unit without his knowledge. When he didn’t show up, he was declared AWOL. He was arrested, set free, then taken into custody again. He eventually served two weeks in the brig. That is where he got his other than honorable discharge.
It’s a long and complicated story.
Despite his status, he was called back to the Inactive Ready Reserves in 2005. He served two more years in Hattiesburg and Gulfport and was discharged again, this time with an honorable discharge that should have earned him VA benefits.
As he reads through his records, it tells the story of his problem: conflicting statements.
“This says uncharacterized, unknown, uncharacterized, unknown, unknown and honorable was the last one.”
Among other things, his paperwork says he enlisted in 1985 when he was 10 years old.
Whenever he went to the VA, they would reject him because of the less than honorable discharge.
Instead of offering to help correct the problem, the VA would tell him “Get my 214 and figure it out,” he said with a shrug.
A DD-214 is an essential piece of paper for any veteran. It defines who he is for VA benefits. Without it, you don’t exist. In Holliman’s case, he had two of them that conflicted, and the VA wasn’t interested in helping him get it fixed.
“This VA has this paperwork, this VA has this paperwork,” he said in frustration.
“So how am I honorable but I can’t get no benefits?” He asked, waving one of several sheets of paper that defined his life. “I can’t get any help.
“They’re (Biloxi VA) saying until I get my 214, and I can get Tampa (VA) squared away and get them (Biloxi VA) squared away, I’m stuck. Even though it says I’m eligible for VA benefits, but I’m not, so what am I supposed to do?”
This is not unusual
WLOX put Holliman in touch with the Mississippi Veterans Affairs. Their office is not a part of the federal VA, but they do work hand-in-hand with them to help Mississippi veterans get their benefits. They were willing to help.
“This veteran is an example of one of those who gets stuck in the cogs of the bureaucratic wheel, falls through the cracks,” said Stacey Pickering, executive director of Mississippi Veterans Affairs. “This is not unusual that a veteran or a family member, they get caught, they don’t know where to turn. That’s what we’re here for, navigating that federal system that is often complicated; it’s often convoluted.
“We want to be there as a state agency to help them pick up those pieces, put it together and get them the benefits that they’ve earned.
“If he has been in Iraq, Afghanistan during the global war on terror, there are benefits he’s entitled to, and we need to help him get that access, and the fact that he has contradictory paperwork, two different DD-214s, different discharge levels, we need to reconcile that to make sure that we’re assisting him.”
Holliman said he has been trying to clear up these paperwork problems for seven years. His needs became more urgent late last year when he was told that his lymphoma had returned. He needed a biopsy but can’t afford treatment.
His fiancé‘s late husband was a Vietnam veteran who had died from lung cancer, so she had traveled this road before. When they hit a roadblock in Biloxi, they went to Tampa where her husband had been treated. Things started well, but they ran into that same roadblock of the less than honorable discharge.
“They tell me your best bet is to go back to where you originally enlisted, talk to the VA there.”
That didn’t help.
“I’ve got Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I’ve got a mass in my right lung, and paying out of pocket to get in to see a doctor gets very expensive.”
Three days after WLOX News Now contacted Pickering’s office, Holliman got his DD-214s, something the federal VA was never able to accomplish. They helped him file the paperwork to correct the errors in his records. However, that could take anywhere from three months to years to make it through the bureaucracy.
In the meantime, they put him in touch with an agency that provided temporary housing. He has food and a few supplies to start a household if another agency is able to find a place for him to live.
However, his VA benefits status, and thus he access to medical care, is still in question.
“I gave this country nine years of my life,” Holliman said. “I’m nobody special. I’m not no hero, I’m not anything. I’m just a vet that’s homeless and is trying to take care of his family, and I just need some help to get this stuff straightened out.”
If you are a Mississippi Veteran in need of assistance with getting access to your benefits, you can contact the Mississippi Veterans Affairs office at (877) 203-5632 or on the website at Mississippi VA.
“They can e-mail, they can call,” Pickering said, “And we can help navigate this system for them.”
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