The VA Aid and Attendance benefit can help some vets and spouses pay for nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and home health care. But the application process is often long and complicated.
At an assisted living facility about 30 miles north of Baltimore, Army veteran Eugene "Bernie" Popiolek, 95, attended a birthday party for a fellow resident.
He sat by the fireplace and snacked on cupcakes passed around by the same small staff who help him with his daily needs.
"They treat me wonderful, I couldn't be treated better," said Popiolek, who has lived at the facility for three years.
The facility costs Popiolek more than $6,000 a month. He pays for it with social security, retirement funds and, as of January 2019, about $1,900 in monthly pension payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The money comes through a VA program called Aid & Attendance, which is designed for war veterans and their surviving spouses who are unable to care for themselves. The recipients must have a net worth less than $129,094, including most assets and annual household income, minus medical expenses not covered by insurance.
"They help me out; I know that," said Popiolek, who said he is proud the VA is recognizing his service as a quartermaster in World War II.
But securing that recognition took his son Gene nearly two years.
A stack of papers; months of waiting
At his nearby home, the younger Popiolek dropped a box of paperwork on his dining room table with a loud thud. It contained bank statements, documents about his dad's service, health records, letters to and from the VA, and correspondence with members of Congress.
The papers in the box document the family's effort to enroll Bernie Popiolek in the VA's Aid and Attendance program.
"It's about 25-30 pounds altogether, soon to be added to with another appeal," said Gene Popiolek, 68.
A lot of that paperwork is common for Aid and Attendance applications. Potential recipients need doctors to verify that they are physically or mentally incapable of living independently. They also need to track down military records that confirm they or their spouse served on active duty for at least one day during wartime. And they need to produce financial documents that prove their net worth.
Popiolek's stack of papers is higher than most, however, because his application process did not go smoothly.
He applied for Aid and attendance for his dad in February 2017, enlisting a lawyer who was a family friend to help prepare the application. The VA then requested his father's medical records from Germany in 1946, which Popiolek located and mailed.
Months later, he found out his application was rejected.
"I just couldn't understand why he wasn't approved," said Gene Popiolek, who quickly filed an appeal.
After several more months, he asked for help in an online forum, and another user pointed out the problem. It turned out that the lawyer who helped Popiolek with the application filled out the wrong form.
So Popiolek applied again, and six months later his father finally started receiving the pension, as well as retroactive pay going back to the effective date of the second application.
At about $1,900 a month, Popiolek's father receives the maximum benefit for veterans with no dependents. A surviving spouse can receive about $1,200.
Popiolek now is trying to recoup some of the thousands of dollars in benefits his father would have gotten had the family applied correctly.
"Thank God I retired, because this has been my job since then basically," he said. "It's been a strain."
Accredited veterans service officers can help
Popiolek acknowledges the mistake was on his end, but he said he is frustrated that no one at the VA caught the error.
Applications go through several people at the VA's regional benefits offices, and each investigates different parts of the claim, explained Philip Mulney, Service and Benefits Director at the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs. So it can be hard to clear up confusion about missing documents or wrong forms.
"The last thing you want to do is get into a letter-writing contest with the VA because it just adds time," Mulney said.
Mulney couldn't comment on Popiolek's case specifically, but said many families are not prepared for the paperwork and patience it takes to get benefits like Aid and Attendance.
"Veterans, and I'm a veteran myself, are notorious for not actually looking into benefits until time of need," he said.
Even when an application is submitted perfectly, it still could take many months to get approved, although the VA typically expedites claims for applicants who are very old or terminally ill. If a veteran or spouse is unable to manage his or her finances, a family member or other representative must apply to become a fiduciary, which involves further investigation.
Even though most recipients can count on eventually getting back pay for that processing period, it's still on them or their family members to pay the bills until the benefit kicks in.
"It's definitely a stressful time for them, you can hear it in their voices," said Mulney, adding that it can be even more complicated when family members involved in the application process don't live near the veteran and have to exchange information and make plans from a distance.
Mulney urges people to go through an accredited veteran services officer to make sure applications are right the first time. Those people don't work for the VA, but are often found at state, city or county veterans offices. Attorneys and benefits agents also can be accredited by the VA.
Going through someone accredited helps ensure the person helping with the application is experienced with the process, which reduces mistakes and lowers the risk of fraud. Accredited officers also have special access to track Aid and Attendance claims as they move through the benefits processing center.
It is illegal to charge a fee for assisting with an initial VA benefits claim, but a lot of families don't know that. Some financial planners have been known to scam vets and their spouses.
Still, Mulney said there are many examples of veterans and their spouses getting the help they need.
"It's just a tremendous relief to families to know that they're cared for and that they have the funds every month to be able to help them be cared for," he said.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.