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‘A different kind of war’: Attorney thinks veteran may hold record for longest-delayed award from the VA

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 10, 2018, noon

Veteran Marlin Dunlap pictured at his home in Vancouver. After waiting more than 50 years to receive veterans benefits for his post-traumatic stress disorder and other injuries, Dunlap finally won his case to be awarded benefits for PTSD, caused by his time in the military. Although he won his case, he has yet to receive any benefits. (Alisha Jucevic / Columbian)
By Calley Hair Columbian

Marlin Dunlap’s Cascade Highlands home doubles as a historic archive.

Two dozen binders hold 59 years’ worth of paperwork, dating back to his 1959 enlistment in the U.S. Army. Stacks and stacks of letters – 15,000, he estimates, to U.S. presidents and Department of Veterans Affairs officials and lawyers and newspaper editors – dominate every horizontal surface in his home office, where medals, distinctions and signed photographs adorn the walls.

Dunlap is a prolific record-keeper. It’s that very quality, combined with a sheer, obstinate refusal to fold, that led to his victory Aug. 10: the award of benefits dating back to 1964 for post-traumatic stress disorder linked to his service in the military.

His Vancouver-based attorney, Josephine Townsend, estimates that he may hold the record for the longest-delayed award from the VA.

“It’s rare. It is so rare. It’s rare that the veteran doesn’t give up when their appeal is denied so many times,” Townsend said. “His case has been remanded, re-investigated, appealed, remanded, denied, appealed – I mean, most veterans would just say, ‘I lost.’”

Back and forth

Dunlap has an encyclopedic mind for the specifics of a timeline. He skips back and forth along his lengthy saga with ease, from his Washington, D.C., hearing June 2, 2016, to his March 27, 1962, discharge date to the death of his son on Nov. 22, 1987. It’s up to the listener to keep up.

Dunlap enlisted in the Army in January 1959 at age 19. He was stationed in Fort Bliss, Texas, where he worked as a driver for his battalion commander. At the time, his battalion was on alert status, meaning they could be called into combat any day.

In 1961, his service earned him the distinction of being the face of the Army. He appeared in a series of enlistment advertisements for the military, sitting astride a tank with three rockets overhead.

Dunlap’s fellow soldiers assumed that his proximity to their commander meant he had information, he said, and they wanted that information. He recalled receiving daily death threats. There was an informal barracks-wide “fight list” that his name appeared on 18 times. Near the end of his service, he described a near-constant state of terror during which he wasn’t sleeping, leaving the lights on at night in his barracks. At one point, he said, he was sexually assaulted.

Dunlap was honorably discharged in March 1962. The commander at Fort Bliss feared for Dunlap’s life and didn’t want “anything to happen on his watch,” as Dunlap put it. He did not receive a standard mustering-out physical, dental or mental evaluation at the Army hospital upon his discharge.

In April 1964, Dunlap filed for veterans benefits based on his PTSD and injuries to his right leg – he had an accident while jogging on base. His handwritten request was legally classified as an informal claim, and the VA did not follow the correct procedure by sending the veteran a formal application. His request was lost.

Dunlap again filed a claim in December 2000 seeking service connection for PTSD, this time through a more formal process. What followed was a glacially slow ping-pong match between Dunlap, the federal VA office in Washington, D.C., and the regional offices in Portland and Seattle.

He moved from Oregon to Washington in 2001, and around the same time, started seeing a psychiatrist who confirmed Dunlap suffered from PTSD. His doctor also confirmed it was related to his time in the service. The change in states meant his file had to change regional offices, which delayed his case.

In February 2002, his claim was denied. He appealed in 2003, and in January 2005, Dunlap attended a hearing at the federal VA office, where he represented himself. In September 2007, the regional office in Seattle granted service connection for PTSD effective from December 2000, linked to Dunlap’s first formal claim.

The VA did not respond to his request for a service-related claim for his leg. He appealed again, seeking an earlier effective date linked to his original claim in 1964, and for the VA to address his leg.

In June 2016, Dunlap had another hearing in Washington, D.C., this time, he was represented by Townsend. His request for an earlier effective date was denied, and the VA remanded his leg injury back to the Seattle regional office.

In November 2017, the court issued a memorandum decision, which reversed the VA board’s decision, remanding the matter for re-adjudication.

And finally, on Aug. 10 – 54 years, three months and 25 days after his first request for benefits – an order from the Board of Veterans’ Appeals featured the magic words: “The criteria for an effective date of April 5, 1964, and no earlier, for the award of service connection for PTSD have been met.”

It was emotional.

“We both cried,” Townsend said, recounting the day from Dunlap’s home Aug. 22. She’s crying again.

“It makes my heart full because when you win, it is something, because it’s so long. And you have veterans that die, and you knew they were right,” she said. “They’re right. The evidence is there, it’s just a matter of getting it processed.”

‘If you won’t settle for less’

“What’s it worth to feel like a man?” asks the promotional poster for the Army, starring Dunlap. The bold letters are emblazoned across the photo of his stern, 22-year-old face staring heroically into the distance. “If you won’t settle for less, the Army’s the place for you.”

The ad, which appeared in multiple 1962 issues of Time magazine, touted the manly opportunities granted by enlisting.

“There’s nothing quite like an Army career; you don’t have to gamble years in a job that may not work out for you. Fulfill your military obligation in the Army, and you’ll have a chance for a good, close look at Army life, Army men, Army opportunities.”

That slogan may ring true for many service members. But in Dunlap’s case, the experience had left him with severe PTSD. He described trying to re-enter the workforce and finding himself incapacitated without warning by his past trauma.

“My problem with doing jobs was that sometimes I’d have a panic attack,” he said. “I’d be trying to sell insurance. I’d just say, ‘Can I use your bathroom?’”

He also went through four marriages and divorces before 1995. He lived with his daughter for a stretch before meeting his current partner, who he’s lived with for the last 19 years.

“I was messed up very badly. For me, it was a different kind of war, something I would never wish upon anyone,” Dunlap said.

After decades of fighting for his due, his waiting game isn’t quite over. Now, the VA is tasked with figuring out just how much they owe the veteran, a process that Townsend predicts may take another two years. He’s owed 100 percent of the disability rate starting from his effective date in 1964.

“He’s looking at a substantial award, but they have to do the math,” she said. “For the VA, it can be a couple of years, and he has to be alive to collect.”

Dunlap will turn 79 later this month.

“Once the award comes back, it goes back in a pile. And even if you’re in an expedited pile, it’s still a very large pile,” Townsend continued.

The volume of claims the VA needs to process far outstretch the agency’s capacity. Townsend said the federal government needs to employ more administrative law judges and more personnel to process these kinds of claims to keep the system ticking along at a more reasonable rate.

Dunlap had a few advantages: his extensive documentation, his stubbornness and his youth when he left the service. He had decades to spend on a legal fight.

“My dealing with the VA has been with some very hardworking people that are very frustrated that they can’t do it all at once. It’s not an intent by them to not help the veteran, but they’re limited in what they’re able to do,” Townsend said.

For his part, Dunlap is cynical about ever seeing a dime – his theory is that “they’re hoping I’m going to die before I ever get the money.” He still hasn’t received an award for his leg. He’s suffered two pulmonary embolisms he says are linked to his initial jogging injury.

“How would you like to walk to the mailbox every day, every week, every month, every year?” he asked. “And never hear?”

If he does see his award, Dunlap said his first order of business would be to pay off his legal fees, and then a few bills. After that, he and his partner plan to change their wills.

He’s not anticipating anything far beyond that, as he still doesn’t know what the dollar amount will be. Townsend’s hopes are a little higher.

“I’m hoping that he gets to go on a cruise and enjoy the rest of his life,” she said.