Eugene Newcombe is a veteran, so he knows what it’s like to fight against the odds. For the last decade or more, the 64-year-old Monticello resident has helped thousands of his fellow veterans wage what he sees as a war of sorts against the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), helping them to apply for disability compensation, offering support when their claims are denied and guiding them through the process of reopening earlier disability claims for further review.
On his website and YouTube channel, Newcombe calls himself The Irate Veteran, donning a flag-adorned T-shirt and a pair of slick mirrored sunglasses. Veterans around the country struggling to receive compensation for service-related injuries regularly turn to him for support. He said he’s seen too many ailing veterans denied disability benefits — and he wants to help. He offers his assistance free of charge.
“When there is a problem that affects tens of thousands of veterans annually and no one is doing anything about it, it bothers me,” Newcombe said.
It goes without saying, military service is a dangerous profession. Service members are routinely injured in the line of duty, and many of those injuries — both physical and emotional — last long after a person has returned to civilian life. Newcombe, who has lived with the resonating impact of a traumatic brain injury he suffered in 1993 during service in Somalia, now receives full VA disability benefits, but it took years of effort (and multiple rejections) before finally winning approval for his physical and mental health claims.
Thus, Newcombe knows firsthand that the process of filing for VA disability benefits can be excruciating. Many veterans are denied, which can be a devastating experience: In recent years, there have been a number of cases in which veterans whose disability claims were denied have later died by suicide.
“Veteran status is important to a veteran,” he said. “A lot of their self-worth is tied up in that picture. Anything that attacks that status hits them at their core.”
Newcombe believes disability claims focused on veteran mental health can be a particularly tough sell with the VA. Yet denial of those claims can end up aggravating existing mental illness. “At least half the veterans that contact me are asking about a mental health issue related to being denied a claim,” Newcombe said.
Brad Lindsay, deputy commissioner of programs and services at the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs (MDVA), said the process of preparing a claim to the federal VA for service-connected health or disability issues is complex.
“That is why we always recommend that veterans contact their county veterans service officer (CVSO) to discuss their situation, review their evidence and have them assist with their claim. The CVSOs work closely with MDVA, or other organizations accredited by the VA, to advocate for the veteran and work toward the best possible outcome,” Lindsay said. “The VA disability process will take time, but a well-prepared claim will increase your chances and reduce the likelihood of future appeals that may take years.”
It takes bravery to admit to mental health struggles, Newcombe said. The emotional pain that’s stirred up when a veteran’s disability claim is denied can be too hard to bear.
“I think that is part of why we see suicides related to veterans’ issues,” Newcombe said.
Because he experienced his own mental health struggles after being denied disability coverage, he knows the pain that his fellow veterans are going through. “Dealing with these problems on a daily basis impacts me on a personal level,” Newcombe said.
With so many of his fellow veterans having their disability claims denied, Newcombe is committed to helping as many as he can.
“Disability claims for thousands of veterans were overturned because they were wrongly decided at the regional level. Why aren’t our politicians looking at that and saying, ‘What’s going on?’”
Mr. Newcombe would like to go to Washington
While Newcombe is happy to be able to help his comrades-in-arms work through their disability claims, he’d also like to get to the root of what he sees as the issue: suspect decisions issued by VA employees conducting medical examinations required in the claim-approval process.
“They come to conclusions not based on science,” Newcombe said of examiners. He’d like to see legislation that requires VA medical examiners’ decisions go through a “quality-control process to make sure that their opinions are based on medical science, not on their own whims.”
In recent years, Newcombe’s been trying to arrange a meeting with one of Minnesota’s senators to discuss possible legislation that could require significant changes to the disability claim review process.
“Veterans are being denied claims that shouldn’t be denied,” he said. “That process needs to be fixed. There are things that can be done through legislation to force the VA to fix what they are doing.”
So far, Newcombe said his attempts to schedule meetings with U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith have been unsuccessful. “I want to be able to talk to the senators to get in the door so I can prove to them what’s going on, and secondly, bring my recommendations for possible legislation to fix the problem,” said Newcombe. “It’s a problem that can be fixed.”
Newcombe, who in 2012 unsuccessfully ran for the Minnesota House of Representatives in district 29B as an Independent, has also begun contacting members of the media with the hope that getting his story out in the public will eventually get the senators’ attention.
Each time he contacts Klobuchar and Smith’s offices to request a meeting, Newcombe said, “I try to relay to them that I’m just a guy. But I’m also a guy who’s helped thousands of veterans one-on-one to get their claims approved. I say I know about these issues from personal experience. I think I rate a meeting.”
A ‘true-blue’ friend
Newcombe credits his personal struggle to win VA approval for his disability claims as inspiration for his activism. After a 20-year Army career, he had a particularly difficult return to civilian life. Injuries that happened in the line of duty added up, he said, and he was in serious pain, with no one who understood what he was going through.
He had a hard time finding a job. “When I got out (of the Army) I was unemployed for four years,” Newcombe said. “I probably had about 30 or 40 interviews. I couldn’t get a job. I swear there was something labeled across my forehead that said, ‘Don’t hire this guy.’”
On top of that frustration was the pain that overshadowed every aspect of his life. “I was having problems with every joint in my body,” Newcombe recalled. “I was completely confused about what was happening both mentally and physically. Add my marriage breaking up to that — it was my first time considering suicide. I bought a gun with the intent of ending my life.”
At the end of his rope, Newcombe decided to apply for disability benefits. “We were living on a savings that we were slowly drawing down,” he said. “I decided I had to do something.”
He worked with Disabled American Veterans to get assistance on his claims, but his case was denied. “I came to the resolution I had to do it myself,” Newcombe said. “Through that process I was able to address all my claims. I won every single claim that I filed. When I finally did get my benefits, my life started turning around.”
Though having his disability claims approved made his life more livable, Newcombe said that he knows he’ll never be the same person he was before his military service.
“I feel like a square peg and everything around is round. I just don’t fit. All I can tell you is before I was injured I wasn’t like this.”
Despite their struggles, he and his wife have stayed together, but Newcombe said they live separate lives. “I live in a small room in my home isolated from my family; it makes life easier for them and me,” he said. “I rarely leave my room except to use the restroom and get food. I eat in my room and almost never go outside.”
Veterans who have worked with Newcombe praise his commitment and patience. When Rui Babilonia, a Marine Corps and Army Reserves veteran from Pennsylvania, who suffered serious service-connected injuries, heard about The Irate Veteran from a friend, she was at one of the lowest points in her life. She had been receiving VA disability benefits for a jaw injury, but her benefit was reduced when a VA examiner claimed that her condition had improved.
Babilonia said her condition wasn’t better at all. In fact it was worse than ever. “When they reduced my benefit I fell apart,” she said. “I have limited ability to open my mouth. It is very painful.”
She reached out to Newcombe, who called her back and patiently talked her through the process. “He held my hand a little bit; (he) said, ‘We need to just calm down, get to filing some stuff, get the VA to correct this.’ He was succinct,” said Babilonia. Together they were able to successfully appeal her decision, and she has been awarded disability benefits.
At the time, Babilonia had been turning to alcohol to calm her anxiety, and she recalled Newcombe helped her with this, as well. “When I was at a place where I was drinking a lot, he sat on the phone with me for hours talking me down from the ledge, helping me prepare my VA documents, encouraging me, being my friend. We still talk for hours.”
Babilonia said the reason so many veterans feel defeated when their disability claims are denied has to do with their belief in the military culture of teamwork and solidarity. But reality is actually different, she said.
“When most veterans look around we are standing alone with no one to help. That’s why Eugene is so important,” said Babilonia.
Steve Kuhn suffered significant injuries during his six-and-a-half-week stint in the military in the summer of 1975. Recently the Minnesota resident turned to Newcombe for assistance applying for a reconsideration of his VA mental health disability benefits. He used the tutorials provided on Newcombe’s website to do most of the work by himself. Later, he spoke with Newcombe on the phone for further guidance.
“He’s a fount of knowledge,” Kuhn said of Newcombe. “He’s willing to share and he doesn’t ask anything for it. He’s knowledgeable and I do believe he’s doing it out of a desire to help other veterans.”
Newcombe said he isn’t in the business of helping veterans scam the VA. He only wants to help those who have a legitimate claim. “I don’t want anyone to receive a benefit who doesn’t deserve to receive a benefit. But that is not the problem. The problem is that people who are deserving the benefit are routinely denied the benefit.”
Babilonia considers Newcombe to be one of her biggest supporters. She doesn’t know what she would do without his advice and wise counsel.
“He talked to me while I was literally doing the ugly cry on the other side of the phone,” she said. “I was so drunk and so broken down by everything.”
Babilonia said their conversations have been a lifeline through difficult times.
“He has been a true-blue friend. If everyone was like Eugene, what a force the veteran community would be,” said the former Marine and Army veteran.