As a research psychologist, Paul Bartone deployed all around the world during his time in the Army. After honorably serving his country for 25 years, Bartone looked forward to enjoying a relaxing retirement with his family. His plans abruptly changed during a routine dental visit at his local VA medical center when irregularities were discovered in his throat. Further tests confirmed what doctors feared—Bartone had Stage IV throat cancer.
During Bartone’s long career, he traveled extensively—going anywhere soldiers were located, including Grenada, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bosnia. His military doctors determined that the throat cancer was most likely connected to the frequent deployments and repeat exposure to carcinogens, diesel fumes and coal dust. Bartone received written confirmation of the doctors’ conclusions, which were included in his initial claim made to the VA in September 2010.
“I waited, like many service members, for the VA to make a decision. Of course it is a busy time for them with lots of disability claims. I understand that,” said Bartone. “VA did their best and kept requesting more examinations and more information. They wanted me to bring in active-duty medical records that chronicled a history of sore throats. But I didn’t have that. I wasn’t sick before, but that’s how a lot of cancers present themselves.”
While Bartone waited, his condition worsened, and he underwent radiation and chemotherapy treatments. “It was a long, drawn-out process,” he said. “I didn’t know when or if it would ever be resolved.”
Bartone’s brother, a retired Marine, had recently contacted DAV and received help filing his own claim. His brother praised the work of the National Service Officers, and Bartone decided he should give them a call.
After reviewing Bartone’s documents, NSO Supervisor Phil Surace and then-Assistant Supervisor Domonique Maestas sprang into action. “I hand-carried his files to the rating team coach,” said Surace. “I prepared a brief to the VA on why Paul should be granted that benefit and why it should not be deferred.” The VA requested another examination, but the Baltimore National Service Office worked to have the duplicative request waived.
“Thank God for DAV and their Baltimore office. They advised me and followed up with the VA. It was the Baltimore office that identified the VA regulation stipulating that within a certain period of time after leaving the service, certain conditions are presumptive,” said Bartone. “That was the key that seemed to break the logjam. Eventually, I had a resolution and was granted the disability from the VA.”
According to 38 CFR Part 3.309 (a), Bartone’s throat cancer is subject to presumptive service connection because it manifested to a compensable degree of 10 percent or more within one year of date of separation.
The VA expedited the decision and granted the condition with an effective date that reflected the date of the diagnosis.
“Without the help of DAV and their expertise, I think I’d still be waiting today,” said Bartone. “They are veterans helping veterans. They know their regulations. They know how the system works.”
Now that Bartone does not have to wait and wonder when, or if, his claim will be reviewed, he wants to make sure that other former service members know there is assistance out there. “DAV is helping with the nuts and bolts—the administrative process—and they provide emotional support that may not be in their job description. Encouragement, an arm around the shoulder—that means a lot, coming from a veteran who has been there. It is so valuable.”
“As our members know, NSOs have gone through the VA claims process themselves,” said National Service Director Jim Marszalek. “They know firsthand the difficulties encountered in the transition from service member to civilian.”
Bartone has advice for veterans struggling with the claims process. “First off, don’t give up. The waiting is difficult, but stay the course and keep in touch with your DAV NSO and provide anything that they need and let them be your guide. Be willing to wait. It does take time. It’s frustrating, but it will be resolved.”
Despite his ongoing recovery, Bartone supports fellow veterans through DAV. He encourages others who have been helped to do the same. “I am thankful for DAV, and, as much as I’m able, my goal is to try to help them in what they’re doing and to serve other veterans.”
“In terms of giving back, if you’re not a member, you should be, and participate in DAV activities as much as you can,” said Bartone. “If you’re able, volunteer as much as you can. Once I can, I’d like to drive the DAV Transportation Network van and help out anywhere else they need me.
“My wife is a DAV Auxiliary Life Member,” continued Bartone. “Becoming a member and telling your veteran friends about DAV is a great way to pay it back. And if you are able, you can support DAV with charitable contributions. If they have more funds, they can help more veterans.”
Surace is not surprised by Bartone’s continued service since receiving help with his claim. “Paul is a wonderful, patient person. He did exactly what we needed him to do in order to get him the benefits he earned,” said Surace. “When we shut off the lights and walk out of the office at the end of each day, we feel good about helping people like Paul.”
“I’m fortunate because I got through it. I have side effects of my treatment to live with, and of course with cancer, you never know how much time you’ll have,” said Bartone. “Right now I’m blessed, and I thank God every day for DAV helping me navigate the VA claims process. My family and I are forever grateful to DAV.”