Forest-Dwelling Vet Gets His Due

Vietnam vet secures benefits after 25-year battle with bureaucracy

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A local Vietnam veteran who waged a 25-year battle for U.S. Army benefits primarily from a 100-square-foot trailer parked here and there in the American wilderness won a six-figure victory Wednesday against a well-armed military bureaucracy.

Hoop Bramoff was notified this week that after a quarter of a century, a military review board had verified his medical disability. The board cut him a check for six years' back pay and activated his monthly benefit payments. Bramoff would not discuss the specific amount of the settlement for publication.

"I read the last line of the report that said we won about five times," he said. "I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it.

"But it's not like winning the lottery," he said. "That's luck. This has been a lot of years of banging my head on the wall."

Bramoff went to war in 1968, but it wasn't until he returned home that the fight of his life began. He served in Vietnam for nearly two years as a military police officer at Long Binh, a large military post that was the target in 1969 of a 10-day offensive that killed 500 people in the first day.

He remembers arresting a drug-crazed soldier who was armed with a grenade launcher. He remembers standing shoulder to shoulder with his fellow M.P.s against rioting soldiers. He remembers the faces of the five Vietnamese muggers who stuck him near the heart with bayonets, leaving stick-pin scars on his chest.

He doesn't remember changing, but when he went back to the U.S. in 1970, he wasn't the same. "I came home and almost immediately things had changed with me," he said. "I was very severe with my stepchildren. I couldn't explain why I was so violent."

Two years later, with his marriage falling apart, Bramoff, who was still in the Army, slit his wrists and jumped out of the ambulance that had been sent to take him to the hospital. He recovered from his injuries and sought help from an Army psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with schizophrenic disorder.

In the years since, he has been in and out of more than a dozen veterans hospitals and has been examined by as many doctors. He has been diagnosed with a variety of mental illnesses -- "schizo-affected disorder" being the most recent. In 1973, he requested and received an honorable hardship discharge and his battle began. He filed for disability benefits based on his mental condition and five years later, his claim was denied.

Army officials said they couldn't find any evidence that Bramoff had sought psychiatric help while in the service. Such evidence would indicate the disorder manifested itself while he was in the Army and would form the basis of his claim.

Bramoff, who was struggling with violent thoughts and feelings of alienation from society, filed an appeal and six years later it, too, was denied.

Unable to hold a job, he gave up his fight for a year and moved into the wilderness in the West and Pacific Northwest with his second wife, Lisa.

Living in the woods
In 1985, he launched the second stage of his campaign by mail -- camping in the woods and receiving letters general delivery at nearby towns.

"We camped out in California for five months and only saw three people the whole time," he said. "We also lived on the edge of the Oregon wilderness for 50 days with a black bear for a neighbor. We camped out for a total of 3,403 days over the course of 13 years."

Bramoff, who is now 50 years old with slightly more brown than gray coloring his rough-cut hair and mustache, moved to the Strawberry area more than five years ago, but he made his best move five months ago when he sought help from Veterans Helping Veterans, a nonprofit organization and local AMVETS post.

Although Bramoff had found a letter four years ago in the military records center in St. Louis that proved he had been under the care of an Army psychologist for six months before his release, his claim had stalled somewhere along the line.

Local vets group helps out
Veterans' advocate and post commander Misti Isley of Veterans Helping Veterans tracked down the claim and babysat it all the way to Washington, where it was finally approved earlier this month.

"I had no idea it was going to be such a hard fight," Bramoff said. "My country needed me when there was dying to be done, and I just assumed my country would be there for me.

"If I had gone to AMVETS earlier, I might have gotten my settlement sooner. It helps to have somebody on your side. They know the ins and outs of the process and they can help you cut the red tape."

The judgment, which rates Bramoff at 100-percent disabled, will allow him to buy a decent pair of glasses, fill his ever-present pipe with Captain Black tobacco instead of the generic kind, allow him to go to college and to buy his own house. "I've been poor my entire adult life," he said. "Now we'll be able to do the things we've been dreaming of."

Nevertheless, Bramoff considers the settlement a hollow victory. "I've won the battle, but the war will not be over for me personally until it's over for all of us," he said.

"We cannot come home individually. We have to come home together. We have to get our country to live up to its obligation to all of our veterans.

"They risked their lives. They're heroes. They believed in our country, but they came back to find their country didn't believe in them."

Local veterans in need of benefit assistance and other services can call Veterans Helping Veterans at 474-3920.

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