Like nearly 40 million other Americans and 1.3 million of his fellow veterans, Rufus Brown experienced hearing loss, yet he had no idea he was afflicted despite its profound impact.
“For years, I was completely unaware,” said Brown. “I would just raise the TV volume or ask people to repeat themselves constantly.”
The Army veteran had served as Vietnam was winding down, ultimately spending half of his 12-year career in Germany. Even though he was a culinary specialist, Brown was attached to a field artillery unit, which exposed him to dangerously loud sounds on a consistent basis.
In 1983, Brown separated from the Army and returned home to St. Louis to become a chef. He worked at various hotels and restaurants in the area for the next two decades.
Over time, with his hearing loss left untreated, Brown struggled to manage his health. Research shows that adults with untreated hearing loss or who need but don’t wear hearing aids, as well as their significant others, have significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety and other psychosocial disorders.
Things started to change for Brown once he met his wife, Marilynn, while working at a casino outside St. Louis.
“When I first met Rufus in 2004, I didn’t know he was a veteran. So when he was having trouble with his hearing, I took him to a private doctor,” said Marilynn. “We discovered Rufus had significant hearing loss and needed hearing aids, but we could not afford several thousand dollars for them.”
Shortly after that initial appointment, Marilynn learned about Brown’s military service. Upon learning he was a veteran, she asked some veteran co-workers for advice, and they all encouraged her to take him to the Department of Veterans Affairs for care and to file a disability claim.
At first, both were reluctant to go to the VA because of all the negative stories they had heard. However, they did not have anywhere else to turn to for help, so they went down to the VA St. Louis Healthcare System, enrolled Brown into care and filed a disability claim for hearing loss.
Brown received his initial disability rating in 2021, and the monetary compensation was vital, as Marilynn had become the family’s primary earner and her husband’s caregiver. She worked two jobs, helped him with his diabetes medication and other prescriptions, and assisted him with his walker or power scooter to get around.
With Rufus nearing 70 and declining in hearing and health, he could not return to work full time. So in 2022, the Browns decided to file for an increase in disability compensation independently, without seeking assistance from an accredited representative.
The VA contracted out an examination to determine an increase in compensation for hearing loss. Upon review of the examination, the VA not only determined that Brown did not warrant an increase in compensation but also proposed a reduction in his rating.
“We were stressed and did not know what to do,” the Browns said. “We were getting by, but the reduction in compensation would have made things financially difficult for our family.”
The VA notified the DAV office in St. Louis that there was a proposed reduction to Brown’s disability compensation, so DAV benefits advocate Michael Franko, a Marine veteran of the war in Afghanistan who also has service-connected hearing loss, reviewed Brown’s case and scheduled a hearing to appeal the decision.
Franko understood the injury’s impact on quality of life, so when he first met the Browns on the day of the hearing, he said, “I understand what you are going through and will do my best to fight this proposed reduction in compensation.”
In the hearing, Franko used his expertise in veterans disability benefits to come to a consensus with the VA. Franko also determined that Brown qualified for other benefits, effectively increasing his overall disability compensation.
“When Michael told us that we won the appeal, we started to cry,” the Browns said. “We were just so relieved at the result that we asked to hug Michael, and he obliged. He did such an excellent job standing up and advocating for us, and [we] could not be more thankful.”
“The story of the Brown family demonstrates the value and expertise our benefits advocates provide,” said DAV National Service Director Jim Marszalek. “They are there to ensure veterans and their families get all the benefits and care they have rightfully earned.”