It’s been more than a year since his hearing for Social Security disability benefits, but Gulf War veteran Shawn McMurray still can’t get the judge’s words out of his mind.
“It’s tormented me since that day,” said the Navy veteran, 44, who served as fueler on board an aircraft carrier during the months-long bombardment of Iraq in 1991 and lives in Bay City with his wife and seven children. “He took my dignity away. I wasn’t proud to be a veteran.”
According to a recording of the April 2014 hearing, administrative law judge Gary Suttles, who hears Social Security disability appeals in the Houston area, questioned how McMurray, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, could have been affected by his wartime experience.
“I mean hey, you were in the Navy. You weren’t even fighting on the ground,” Suttles told McMurray. “To me it would have been exciting. What do you mean stressful?”
Suttles’ comments have sparked calls for his temporary removal and led to a hasty apology from the Social Security Administration. After being informed of Suttles’ exchange with McMurray, the agency said it plans to launch an investigation into the judge and “take action, as appropriate.”
U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, whose district covers Bay City, called the comments “insensitive and disrespectful” and applauded the agency for investigating.
For veterans groups, the incident is yet more evidence of the federal government’s resistance to provide benefits to service members who suffered physical and psychological injuries during what has come to be known as the 100-Hour War.
“A lot of people have the perception, how could you have PTSD if the Gulf War was only a couple of days?” said Jim Bunker, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center. “They don’t understand the dangers faced by people in the Navy. You only know about the 100 hours, not the battles, skirmishes before and after.”
Anthony Hardie, spokesman with the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense and former member of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illness, said Suttles should be removed from his duties until he receives comprehensive training in post traumatic stress disorder and other war injuries. “It is disturbing that a judge in the federal disability system appears to be unaware of the often harsh realities of serving in the middle of the Persian Gulf during the 1991 Gulf War.”
McMurray entered the Navy out of high school in 1990 and almost immediately was put aboard the USS America, a carrier in the Red Sea. The ship launched its first air strikes on Iraq in mid-January 1991, before moving into the Persian Gulf a month later. It provided air support for American troops for several weeks and left the Gulf in early March, its fighter jets having conducted more than 3,000 combat sorties.
The made-for-CNN packaging of the war, which featured just a few days of ground fighting before Saddam Hussein’s forces fled Kuwait, masked the reality of life aboard aircraft carriers, veteran advocates say. Hardie said those aboard carriers endured “the sheer terror of incoming missile attacks, any of which might have been laden with chemical or biological warfare agents.” Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf also confronted the threat of underwater mines and environmental hazards like smoke from oilfield fires.
“Fueler is a high stress job in itself,” Bunker said. “It’s extremely long hours in an extremely dangerous position. He’s being told people’s lives depend on him. Things can happen on those decks that we have no clue about, mishaps. You’re told you could die out there at any time. In most deployments you don’t have that kind of stress going.”
In February 1991, McMurray watched as a fighter jet crashed on landing, causing the pilot to eject into the sea.
But for Suttles, the setting on the deck of the USS America was a recipe for adventure. McMurray was seeking disability benefits based on a catastrophic 2012 crash in which his motorcycle was struck by a truck, resulting in the loss of his spleen and a punctured lung that he said left him unable to work. The claim also included psychological ailments including depression, bi-polar disorder and PTSD and about ten minutes into the hearing, Suttles probed McMurray about his war experience.
Suttles: “What do you think happened to you in Iraq? I mean, hey, you were in the Navy. You weren’t even fighting on the ground. I mean, you were out in the ocean weren’t you?”
McMurray: “Yeah but, I was on a carrier. We lost a lot of planes.”
Suttles: “OK, you’re out there on this big old carrier that doesn’t even touch ground.”
McMurray: “It’s stressful.”
Suttles: “Well, life is stressful,” (laughing)
McMurray: “Uh, yeah.”
Suttles: “To me it would be exciting. What do you mean stressful? I mean you’re on this floating city in the middle of the (ocean)….Didn’t you find that exciting?”
McMurray said the exchange “hurt me so bad. … He just slammed all of us. What judge in his right mind would tell a veteran that? He’s very biased and discriminating against the Navy.”
Through a Social Security spokeswoman, Suttles declined to comment. But the agency apologized in a statement: “Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We apologize for Judge Suttles’ comments. All employees are expected to observe the requirements of courtesy and consideration while serving the public or dealing with coworkers and must conduct themselves with propriety.”
Asked what training Suttles had received regarding military disabilities and PTSD, spokeswoman Nicole Tiggemann said only that “Social Security provides judges training and guidance on procedures for handling military-related disabilities, including PTSD.” It’s unclear whether Suttles, 62, has military experience himself.
Suttles denied McMurray’s claim, though that is not an unusual occurrence, according to records of his judgments. Since 2010, Suttles has denied 81.3 percent of claims, the tenth highest denial rate in the nation and about double the national average, according to monthly reports provided by the agency. There are about 1,500 Social Security judges in the U.S.
The judges, who hear appeals that have already been denied by Social Security personnel, are hired by the Social Security Administration through a competitive application process and are meant to serve in an independent capacity.
In recent years, critics have complained about what they say is the agency’s high approval rate, pointing to sharp increases in government disability payments. This year, Social Security is expected to spend $145 billion on disability benefits, up from $93 billion a decade ago. An association representing judges has accused the agency of pressuring judges to award claims as a way to reduce a backlog of about one million people.
But decisions vary widely by geography: Texas has the fifth highest denial rate at 49.7 percent; Hawaii has the lowest with 22.9 percent.
Bunker said that in politically conservative states, PTSD-based claims are more difficult to win. “There are certain states that don’t fully understand; the judges say, ‘Well, you were in this branch (of the military), you can’t have PTSD.’ It’s almost impossible to get it there. But in more liberal states it’s almost automatic.”
Veterans groups say difficulties for Gulf War veterans extend to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which they say has put up barriers to care and compensation for PTSD among veterans of the Desert Storm conflict.
After leaving the Navy in 1991, McMurray filed a claim for PTSD with the VA, but was rejected. Subsequent appeals were also unsuccessful. While the VA has diagnosed McMurray with PTSD, according to medical records, VA benefits officials say they are unable to determine whether his PTSD stems from his experience in the Navy.
McMurray was discharged from the Navy with a diagnosis of “personality disorder,” but veterans groups say PTSD was little understood or diagnosed in the early ’90s (The term had just come into use in the 1980s).
“Back in the ’90s they were real sticklers,” said Bunker. “You basically had to be in combat. It was almost impossible unless your ship was in direct combat.”
In 2010, the VA broadened eligibility for PTSD claims to non-combat service members whose triggering event is “related to fear of hostile military or terrorist activity.” The change came in reaction to the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who suffered roadside bombs and mortar attacks outside the traditional battlefield. The new rule has opened up PTSD claims for Desert Storm veterans who served in support roles, though the VA was not able to say how many Desert Storm veterans have re-filed successful claims after the change.
But perhaps the biggest complaint among veterans of Desert Storm has been the government’s reluctance to recognize or conduct research into Gulf War Illness, a cluster of ailments thought to be connected to toxic exposures.
“We have been lost in the shuffle,” testified Donald Overton, executive director of Veterans of Modern Warfare at a Congressional hearing in 2010. “Overcoming the VA’s established culture towards Gulf War veterans will not be an easy task.”
Veteran advocates say they hope the exchange with Suttles will help increase understanding of the issues facing Gulf War veterans, especially those who served at sea.
“Social Security judges need to better understand what people experience in war instead of judging people,” said Bunker. “They need to step back and think about it and not ridicule veterans.”
McMurray said he has been unable to work for the last two years, leading to extreme financial difficulties for the family of nine, and has filed an appeal of Suttles’ denial. “I’m still fighting for my benefits,” he said. “I’m trying to fight my way out of it.”
Data editor Christian McDonald contributed to this report.
Investigative reporter Jeremy Schwartz has covered veterans and military issues for the Statesman since 2009. He has broken stories on wait-time manipulation at the Department of Veterans Affairs, improper handling of disability claims and a brain injury research program that failed to produce studies.