From the Mobile Press Register (January 21, 2010)
Written by Robbie McClendon
Many veterans struggle to access their government benefits, but Brannan Vines, whose husband left the Army in 2007 after two tours in Iraq, has channeled her frustrations into helping others.
The Daphne woman's Web site, familyofavet.com, is dedicated to helping veterans and their families navigate the stormy waters of life after combat.
After Iraq, civilian life should have been easy for Spc. Caleb Vines, his wife said.
He'd survived more than a dozen explosions and seen more than his share of death and destruction, she said. His daughter was born while he was deployed.
But life wasn't easy. In many ways he simply traded one battle in for another, she said.
The new adversary was the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the new objective, securing the benefits and health care Caleb Vines, 32, had been promised by the government.
Caleb Vines declined to be interviewed for this story.
Calls left over several days with the VA's public information office in Washington were not returned.
The VA was created to help veterans access their benefits, but nearly every interaction with the bureaucracy felt like a battle, Brannan Vines said.
"Nothing was like, 'this is how you get access to this benefit,' or 'this is how the system works,'" Vines said.
A 2008 study conducted by the Government Accountability Office found that by 2007, nearly 400,000 veterans were waiting for the VA to make a decision on their benefit claims.
Vines said that a bureaucratic foul-up led to her husband being denied benefits despite what she called overwhelming evidence that he suffered from traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder.
Repeated explosions, like the one that punched a hole in the armor of his Humvee, also punched holes in her husband's short-term memory, Vines said.
"He's forgotten entire conversations," she said.
Crowds had to be avoided. Grocery trips had to be carried out at night.
"Your whole life becomes trying to keep your family together," Vines said.
Sgt. Andrew McConnell, now retired, fought alongside Vines in Iraq and maintained contact after they left the military.
"I knew he was having a hard time," McConnell said, "But he's a Southern man, pride and all. For anybody, it's hard to talk about what happened, but especially for someone like him."
Eventually, Brannan Vines stumbled onto a Web site dedicated to veterans' wives and contacted the site's founder for advice.
"She told me," Vines recalled, "either this is going to kill you, or you are going to get a hold on it by helping other people get a handle on it.'"
Vines decided the best way to help others was through the creation of the Web site.
The site, which gives advice on a variety of topics, including how to recognize and deal with post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, averages about 100-180 visits per day, she said.
McConnell, who now lives in Germany, credits Brannan Vines with helping him obtain his Veterans Affairs benefits upon his retirement.
"She walked me through the system like a newborn baby," he said. "It's a system set up to deny any claim until they are forced to accept it. Without Brannan Vines I would not be receiving the benefits I am today."
Vines said her own struggles with Veterans Affairs have yet to be fully resolved, although her husband is receiving some disability benefits.
To view original article with photos, etc., go to http://blog.al.com/live/2010/01/vets_wife_channels_frustration.html