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Disabled veterans in Utah often falling under the radar

Deseret Morning News graphic

Sgt. Dave Sneddon's days of crawling through the Vietnam jungles are long gone.

Now the Ogden resident crawls up the stairs at night because his brittle feet can't carry him anymore. Agent Orange can do terrible things to your body, he said.

"I've gotten everything from A to Z," said Sneddon, who volunteered to fight with the Army's 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam. "But I'm still here. I feel like I was unscathed from the war. I went and I came back. Others weren't as lucky."

Sneddon is one of thousands of Utah veterans with service-related disabilities. But most of them are too humble to ask or don't know that help is out there, said Terry Schow, director of the Utah Division of Veterans Affairs.

"Sadly, sometimes some veterans think applying for V.A. benefits is like applying for welfare, and that absolutely is not the case," Schow said. "Many of these guys are so humble and so modest that they would never ever do it on their own. It's our job to make sure they get what they need."

Schow said funding for outreach programs to find veterans who need assistance is minimal. Last year, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. allocated $100,000 of his budget to pay for such programs, but the Legislature disagreed, and the funding didn't make it past the Executive Appropriations Committee.

Utah receives the lowest amount of V.A. dollars for service-related disability compensation and pension cases in the Intermountain West.

Nearly 12 percent of veterans nationwide receive V.A. compensation and pension funds. Only 9 percent of Utah's veterans receive the funding, bringing in a total of $150.7 million per year.

Also, Maine is home to more than 10,000 fewer veterans, but that state received nearly $140 million more.

"We have just underfunded our program," Schow said. "It is the veterans who are hurt by it. I don't mind shaming legislators into doing the right thing."

Sneddon spent years draining his wife's state insurance policy to pay for his service-related disabilities. His ailments got so bad he had to quit working altogether.

He didn't know his medical problems were caused by exposure to Agent Orange. It wasn't until several doctor visits later that they confirmed the exposure. After that, Sneddon's wife turned to Schow for help.

Originally, Sneddon told Schow he was just looking for an extra $300 or so a month to "keep his head above water" but ended up getting a lot more. Now his health-care costs are covered by the V.A., in addition to a $20,000 back payment and another $2,000 a month for his pension, Schow said.

"There are thousands of guys like him across the state that need help," Schow said. "We've got to find them. Our country made a pact to take care of them."