All it took was a single VA bureaucrat to put the kibosh on what could have been a tremendous and positive program for the widows and widowers of America’s deceased veterans. The proposed program potentially was a WIN, WIN, WIN situation, but the VA discarded it and we still do not know the reason.
President Earl Graham of Veterans America (501 (c) 3) receives numerous phone calls from widows of deceased veterans pleading for guidance in dealing with the Veterans Administration.
When an American Veteran passes away, he/she sometimes leaves his/her spouse in a financially precarious situation.
Graham, a former Army officer himself, came up with the idea to get the VA and the coroner who decides on the cause of death to speak with one another so the coroner’s office could get the veteran’s medical background to aid in determining cause of death.
Sometimes, decades of service-connected disabilities contribute significantly to the death of a veteran. Having this information allows the coroner’s office to make a more accurate determination of death on the death certificate, which could affect the dependent spouse’s eligibility for VA benefits.
Dependents, many of whom are senior citizens struggle to pay the bills after their veteran spouse passes away. A death benefit from the VA would go a long way to help those struggling widows and widowers.
The first thing Graham did was to establish a (501 (c) 3) non-profit organization to guide vets and their dependents through the confusing and many times frustrating maze called the Department of Veterans Affairs.
To help the spouses of deceased veterans, President Graham needed to find a county coroner who had a strong desire to help veterans and their dependents. Graham was fortunate to find a hard-charging county coroner in Richland County, South Carolina. Her name is Naida Rutherford.
Naida grew up in poverty as a ward of the state and foster child. She aged out of foster care and became homeless two days after graduating from high school. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she continued to focus on her goals of achieving success.
A serendipitous audition at Benedict College earned her a full athletic scholarship. Naida graduated mag cum laude with a bachelor degree in biology. From there she went on to nursing school, completing her Masters in Nursing and becoming a nationally board certified nurse practitioner.
Naida worked in the healthcare community for fifteen years when she decided to run for county coroner and ended up knocking out an old stodgy incumbent who was coroner for decades.
Her 2020 election made her the first woman, first medical professional and first person of color to hold the title of Coroner since the office was established 175 years ago. Talk about shattering the glass ceiling!
WHAT DOES A CORONER DO?
A coroner’s office is generally responsible for investigating all suspicious, violent, sudden, and unexpected deaths in the county of their jurisdiction.
Additionally, the coroner also investigates all deaths that occur in a hospital within the first twenty-four (24) hours of admission.
After the investigation is concluded, the coroner determines whether the manner of death is due to natural causes, an accident, a suicide, or a homicide.
The coroner also assists and counsels the families, helping them to cope with their loss by using victim advocates.
Because of the skyrocketing crime rates in many American cities, the coroners are extremely busy. Many are under-funded and short-staffed. Among its many duties, the coroner’s office has the duty to determine cause-of-death which is declared on the decedent’s death certificate. Generally, only the county coroner can change the cause-of-death on a death certificate.
TEAMS UP WITH THE CORONER’S OFFICE
For natural causes, a death certificate could indicate causes such as, stroke, cardiac arrest, atrial fibrillation, atherosclerotic heart disease, congestive heart failure, severe COPD, respiratory failure, pneumonia, etc.
On frequent occasions, the cause of death could have occurred because of a plethora of other issues. In the case of a deceased veteran, the cause-of-death may very well have been as a result of injuries sustained while on active duty, in other words, “service connected.”
Veterans America President Earl Graham quickly realized the coroner’s office does not have the medical records held by the Veterans Administration and simply does not know the decedent’s medical history.
Had the coroner known of the veteran’s medical history, the cause-of-death could possibly be entered differently on the veteran’s death certificate. A more accurate cause-of-death could mean the difference in being eligible, or not being eligible for VA benefits.
President Earl Graham quickly surmised that if the coroner’s office had the medical history, the wording in the cause-of-death declaration on the death certificate could be changed to more accurately describe the veteran died because of maladies that were “service connected” thereby making benefits available to his/her dependents.
Obviously, a dependent cannot just walk in the front door of the coroner’s office demanding the coroner change the cause-of-death on their word alone. That isn’t going to cut it.
The spouse of a deceased veteran is forced to deal with two government bureaucracies, the coroner’s office and the Veterans Administration, a dauting task for a 70-80 year old spouse.
First thing is to find a coroner’s office that is sincere in helping America’s veterans. That’s obviously a prerequisite in order to achieve a successful outcome. So, the first thing is the coroner and her staff needs to care about the people they dutybound to serve.
Earl Graham, as president of a non-profit organization, guided the coroner’s office through the frustrating maze at the Veterans Administration to submit the right forms in order to obtain the medical history of deceased veterans.
With the knowledge of the veteran’s medical history, the county coroner will have the big picture and a better understanding of the contributing cause(s) of death.
Where appropriate and justified, the coroner can use his/her authority to change the cause-of-death determination on the veteran’s death certificate potentially making the veteran’s spouse eligible for VA benefits.
YOU CANNOT IMAGINE WHAT IT MEANS
People cannot imagine what it means to have even a subtle change in the wording in the “cause of death” block of the death certificate. Suddenly, the VA opens the doors on benefits.
Upon the death of a veteran, the widow or widower suddenly must cope with all of the emotional and financial stresses a sudden death in the family can bring forth.
Once the veteran’s spouse pays for the burial expenses, she finds him or herself with loaded up credit cards and payments difficult to make because her bread winner is now gone.
Once the government is notified by the funeral home of a death, they take immediate steps to stop all government benefits including disability payments and social security deposits.
Frequently, the government will not only stop payment, but reach into the bank account and extract what they deposited the same month the veteran passed away. Talk about a kick in the teeth when you’re still grieving over the loss of a family member.
Veterans America helps to guide bereaved spouses through the process of applying for a change to the cause of death on a death certificate with the county coroner and works with the Veterans Administration to provide the necessary medical background of the veteran so the coroner has a better understanding of what actually caused the death of the veteran.
Once the cause of death is determined based on the medical background of the decedent veteran, the Veterans Administration arrives like the cavalry to help the family deal with a sometimes overwhelming financial burden the veterans death has created.
THE ONLY WAY THIS CAN WORK
The only way this can work is with three important parties working as a team. The first member of the team is the first point of contact, an organization like Veteran America who will take the time to do a preliminary screening to determine eligibility.
If the dependent who lost a loved one does not have the veteran’s medical records, a non-profit sincerely interested in helping veterans and their families, will help guide them to obtain those medical records.
The second part of the team is the coroner’s office of the county where the veteran died. They must be proactive and sincerely want to help the veteran’s dependent. The family must submit their signed authorization on a VA Form to the coroner so the coroner can request the service connected disabilities directly from the VA.
All of this takes very little time and energy. Again, the family authorizes the coroner’s office to request information from the VA referring to service connected disabilities. It’s a no brainer.
If the coroner’s office is understaffed, non-profits like Veterans America helps guide them to the right office at the VA which cuts down on time and frustration for coroner’s staff.
And finally, the third important player in this team effort is the VA itself. Once the word gets out to other counties across the country, the VA’s call volume will undoubtedly rise dramatically. The VA should consider establishing an office to handle just these types of calls and work in concert with dependents and the various county coroner’s office nationwide.
There are 3142 counties in the United States. Presumably, there are therefore about 3142 county coroners. This isn’t a hard number because in a few cases some coroner offices serve more than one county. Coroner Naida Rutherford, for example, is responsible for both Richland and Kershaw Counties.
Non-profit organizations and their volunteers dramatically reduce the enormous workload of the coroner and the Veterans Administration, facilitating the communications between the two entities.
Since, it’s always smarter to cut out the middle man, the VA could create a special system to handle calls from county coroners requesting the medical background on a deceased veteran on behalf of a grieving spouse.
If we put a man on the moon in 1969, we surely can conquer a communications issue to allow for all the county coroners in the United States to cut through the VA bureaucracy in obtaining the medical history of a deceased veteran so that a more accurate cause of death could be entered into the death certificate when issued by the coroner’s office.
THE VETERANS ADMINISTRATION
BECAME THE FLY IN THE OINTMENT
In their infinite wisdom, the Veteran’s Administration installed Woody Middleton as Acting Director of the VA’s Columbia Regional Office who apparently nixed the idea of sharing information with the local county coroner.
Middleton was described as a sort of slippery character, an Eddie Haskell kind of guy. We don’t know know the man personally, but that’s the way he was described to us by people who know him. Woody Middleton is purportedly a crafty politician who knows how the work the system for his own gain.
We have heard rumors of a scandal at his office since he was installed as the acting director. MilitaryCorruption.com is seeking information about this alleged scandal to find out if Woody Middleton was involved in some fashion. Was he pinching the secretary’s ass, or did someone else pinch someone’s behind and Woody covered up for him? Trust us, MC.com will find out and let our readers know when we know.
We attempted to contact Mr. Middleton by phone, but were unable to speak with him about why he was not interested in what appeared to be a good idea to help the spouses of deceased veterans. None of this makes any sense. The former Director would have approved of this proposed program wholeheartedly.
Just when the coroner’s office and Veterans America thought they had succeeded in setting up an effective communication system between the coroner and the VA, Woody Middleton suddenly stopped the program, tossing the whole idea in the trash bin.
In this single action, Woody Middleton dashed the hopes and dreams of many dependents of deceased veterans in Richland County. Many people who could be receiving benefits have been left out in the cold.
His action to quash the program meant that his office could not claim in the future of being foresighted enough to embrace a program that could have helped thousands of needed dependents throughout the United States.
The VA’s cooperation with the Richland County Coroner, could have been the flagship, leading the way for county coroners to follow they same model of success.
If the VA would have put their marketing teams behind this VA to coroner program in an effort to notify and educate all the county coroner’s in the United States, the effect would have been overwhelmingly positive for hundreds of thousands veteran dependents.
The mere wisp of a pen by the county coroner changing cause-of-death on a death certificate could potentially affect the lives of countless spouses of deceased veterans.
A cause-of-death determination that is based on the veteran’s medical history would incredibly and positively affect the lives of thousands of people across the nation.
But, Woodrow Middleton, for whatever reason, had second thoughts and quashed the proposed program. It only took one person without vision to eliminate an extraordinary program before it had the chance to lift off the runway. Unfortunately, we never were able to find out from Mr. Middleton why he chose to quash the proposed program of cooperating with the county coroner’s office.
SOURCES REVEAL A DARK SIDE
We very much wanted to post a positive feel-good type of story. Unfortunately, our hope to publish a positive feel-good story with a happy ending did not occur.
Our investigation revealed a more disturbing dark side of the Veterans Administration. It’s been alleged the VA doles out much higher bonuses and other compensation to VA directors who save the VA money by denying benefits and medical attention to veterans and their dependents. Obviously, this is a conflict of interest.
We don’t know if this occurred in this particular case, but according to the people we interview who are in positions to know the truth, this secret policy is occurring throughout the Veterans Administration.
At first we didn’t believe it, but then received corroborative evidence through the testimony of other people within the VA who confirmed that people are being rewarded for saving the VA money. The easiest way to save the VA money is to deny benefits to veterans and their dependents.
The way it was put to us, the more VA bureaucrats deny benefits to our veterans and their dependents, the richer they get and the easier it is to get promoted.
Remember the Blue Water Navy Act fiasco? A Bill was making its way through Congress that would include thousands of Navy sailors who were exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Amazingly, the Bill passed the House unanimously, then headed to the Senate.
The VA sent their mouthpiece over to lobby Senators NOT TO VOTE in favor of the Blue Water Navy Act. Helping Navy sailors who were suffering and dying from their exposure was just too expensive for the VA. Consequently, the VA wanted this life-saving Bill tossed in the trash bin.
It’s all about the money. We can leave our Taliban enemies $85 Billion in sensitive military equipment, but somehow cannot find the money to help the spouses of deceased veterans.
Was that the reason Woody Middleton quashed the Coroner/VA cooperation idea? That question still needs to be answered. It sure as hell wasn’t because the Richland County Coroner wasn’t trying her best to cooperate with the Veterans Administration.
Determining cause of death is generally not too difficult for any professional county coroner. But, many veterans die of causes related to their service-connected disabilities of which the coroner has no knowledge, unless the VA provides medical background information.
Spouses of deceased veterans can fill-out and sign the appropriate form so the VA will release information to the county coroner. But something even so simple as that can become difficult for elderly widows and widowers.
Wouldn’t it be better for all concerned if the coroner and VA office are willing participants, working together to help the spouses of deceased veterans, many of whom are elderly and have their own health issues with which to contend.
The basic premise is that we should all be on the same team working for a common goal.
The remarkable part of this whole story is that Nadia Rutherford was the first Coroner in the nation to embark on an aggressive effort to work hand in hand with the Veterans Administration to determine the cause of death was related to service-connected disabilities.
Unfortunately, the cooperation she hoped for ended when Woody “I don’t give a damn” Middleton became acting director. All it took was just one bureaucratic bozo to stop what might have been a model of collaboration and partnership that all other VA offices could have emulated.
We attempted to get Woody Middleton on the record to tell us why he isn’t interested in working with the local coroner’s office. Our attempt to connect with him failed.
We then reached out to his boss Director Thomas Murphy to find out if he knew why the communication and cooperation with the coroner’s office was curtailed. We emailed him and heard nothing back.
The VA system works when we all work together as a team. If the VA, County Coroner and Non-profit organizations all have their heart in the right place, miracles can happen for people, many of which have lost homes and sources of income.
Even though the Veterans Administration successfully thwarted this new and exciting program, we should still recognize those who were working hard behind the scenes to make it happen.
Did the Veterans Administration did not recognize the earth-shaking potential of collaborating with the county coroner? Or, did the VA intentionally void, suppress, ignore and set aside any coroner-to-VA alliance because their participation would cut too deeply in the VA’s annual budget?
By failing to cooperate with the coroner’s office, the Veterans Administration has violated their primary mission, a duty to assist.
Naida Rutherford, Coroner of Richland and Kershaw Counties,
Oveta James, Deputy Chief Coroner
Jeffery Lampkin, Public Information Officer for the Coroner’s Office
Mr. Earl Graham, President of Veterans America (501 (c) 3) non-profit organization
Anyone desiring more information or interested in filing an official complaint should contact…
Public Information Officer at the Richland County Coroner’s Office, Jeffrey Lampkin: 803-576-1799.
People interested in filing a complaint should do so through Congress. Send a letter to 810 Vermont Avenue, NW. Suite 500, Washington D.C., 20420. Or, you can call the Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs (OCLA) – Veterans Affairs Division at: 202-461-6490, or FAX (if you still have one of those machines) at: 202-273-9988.
We were not able to speak with Woody Middleton and/or his boss Thomas Murphy, but we do know the proposed program would have been a monumentally successful program, if given the chance by the Veterans Administration.
Sadly, the program was never got the chance, but Veterans Administration can still do it if they want to. And that’s the problem. They don’t want to.