Defending our defenders
When Douglas Ducote, of Baton Rouge, left the Army National Guard in 2004, his dealings with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs left much to be desired.
He didn’t just get mad.
He got online.
“It was horrible the way the veterans were being treated — the lack of respect, in some cases just outright, blatant lies,” Ducote said. “So, I started fighting the system, and in the process of fighting the system I put together a Facebook page to expose what was happening to me.”
Ducote, 52, started Veterans United for Justice, which helps veterans with the VA and other services. Although volunteers help with his Facebook page, it is mostly a one-man operation.
“I think Doug Ducote is the strongest advocate for veterans’ benefits than anyone I’ve ever met,” said Jim Stanco of Temple, Texas.
Ducote joined the Army in 1985. He left active duty in 1993 but remained in the National Guard and was reactivated in 2002. Ducote said he was exposed to nerve gas in Saudi Arabia, was struck by shrapnel from an Iraqi Scud missile and experienced post traumatic stress disorder.
When the VA did not grant him the compensation he thought he had earned — Ducote said a VA doctor “chose to blatantly lie” — he fought the ruling through an investigator he knew in Washington, D.C., and the case was eventually decided in his favor.
“I decided I’ve got nothing but time on my hands, and I know what I went through and I know other vets are going through it,” Ducote said. “What can I do now as a retired military person to help other vets?
“Let me turn this into something positive. What can I do to help vets, especially those who have PTSD or that are in situations where they are very depressed, not only help them navigate the system and learn about other benefits that they’re not told about … and get them out doing something?”
Ducote’s Facebook page, originally called Louisiana Veterans for Justice, is designed to publicize the plight of veterans struggling to cope with physical and emotional wounds or navigating the VA system, and to serve as a beacon for those looking for help. Many who contacted Ducote were from out of state, so he changed the name.
One such veteran was Roger Stevens of North Bonneville, Wash., who had met Ducote in the Army and struggled with the VA for about eight years over compensation for PTSD before contacting him earlier this year.
“I just wrote him one day and said, ‘Hey, man, can you help me out here? They’re just giving me the runaround,’” Stevens said. “He just picked up the phone, made some phone calls to Washington, D.C. I don’t know what he said, but it sped it along pretty expeditiously. … It seemed like right after he talked to whoever, it took about three months for it to go through.”
Family support helped Ducote through tough times, but not all veterans have that.
He speaks to groups, hands out business cards to veterans he meets in public and has a friend in New Orleans who refers veterans who are struggling. If needed, Ducote will meet them at the VA office in New Orleans to walk them through the process, and lets them know about benefits they may be eligible for at the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs.
“There are so many avenues available out there, and there’s no one place to go to get all that,” he said.
“The first thing is gaining a personal rapport of friendship, brothership, because I know how you’re feeling. I know what that person has been through when they were in Afghanistan or Iraq. … I’m not a therapist, but I’ve been able with my own experience with PTSD and dealing with vets to determine right away, ‘Do they really want help?’ … There’s a lot of stuff that can be done.”
Ducote and his father once owned Ducote’s Country Dance Hall, which gave him some music industry contacts. The business did not last, but the contacts have come in handy, allowing Ducote to take veterans to concerts and let them meet the band members while there.
In many cases, the musicians make a point of introducing the veterans during the performance.
“They get more out of it than the vets do,” he said.
To contact Veterans United for Justice, visit facebook.com/VUFJnonprofit.