During the past 12 years, some two million Americans have served overseas, both fighting the enemy and supporting the war-fighting infrastructure. Nearly half of these two million troops are now civilians and have turned to the Department of Veterans Affairs for assistance.

The VA Disability Clusterfuck

Over the past few months, the issue of delays in awarding VA disability benefits has made headlines. We take an in-depth look at the situation. It’s an onslaught the VA found itself ill equipped to manage; the agency lacked the technology, infrastructure, and manpower to process these requests for help.

In a war zone, the body’s aging process is on fast-forward. Infantry soldiers continually marching up the side of a mountain carrying 70-pound packs can use up, in just a single year, knees meant to last a lifetime. Truck drivers attempting to navigate hostile, unfamiliar terrain get into accidents that leave lifelong damage. Combat engineers building firebases in remote deserts who endure 80-hour weeks and carry on working despite injuries end up as 30-year-olds on the operating table of a back surgeon.

Last year, some 1.3 million troops filed paperwork with the VA claiming disability compensation and medical care. The backlog as of April/May 2013 consists of almost 900,000 cases; wait times of two years or more have become commonplace. As of press time, the VA has announced plans to improve the situation by going paperless. In mid-April, an announcement was made that all two-year-old claims would be resolved in the next 60 days. (An attempt was made to contact the VA for comment, but we did not get a response.)

Let’s look at just a few of the people who have been caught in the backlog.

Jeremy Weir, a 29-year-old Iraq vet in rural Oregon, came home with intense headaches, depression, and constant anxiety after finding himself at the intersecting end point of four rocket-propelled grenades. “It’s something you can’t describe,” he says. “You just can’t stop your body from sweating, your heart from racing. Holding and hugging my kids doesn’t feel right anymore. It’s almost as if I’m hugging a stranger to be nice. I just have so much going on in my head from my experiences, it doesn’t want to stop.” Weir was working for an electrical wholesaler when his boss jokingly asked who had killed more-people, Weir or another vet who worked there. Weir lost his temper, and his job. The VA responded by waging a four-year battle with Weir over disability compensation, finally awarding full disability only after Weir became suicidal and weathered multiple mental-health hospitalizations.

Marine Kevin English suffered from PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and disabling neck and back pain after a motor-vehicle collision during his third tour in Iraq. English’s injuries and frequent absences from work for medical treatment made it difficult for him to hold down a job. On November 8, 2012, English’s wife, Lindsay Dove — who was supporting the couple and their two young children — uploaded a video onto You Tube. She was looking into the camera while holding up a printout from her husband’s VA eBenefits web page and reading the estimated completion date of his application for disability compensation: May 5, 2014 — for an application that was submitted in February 2011 and marked PRIORITY due to financial hardship. Dove pointed at the estimated date of completion and angrily said, “That, right there, is why soldiers commit suicide.”

That video, her second on You Tube regarding this issue, was the culmination of years of frustration. Dove’s calls to the VA to inquire about the status of her husband’s application frequently failed to connect; often, she would get an electronic message to call back later when lines were available. When she did get through, it took anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to speak to an operator, at which point he or she read from a carefully worded script that explained no information was available on English’s case. Dove is still angry. “They should have something that gives you something to rest your mind on,” she says. “Just something that says, your application is 50 percent complete, or you’re number 50,000 out of half a million, whatever. But there’s nothing.” In Dove’s case, it took two You Tube videos and the involvement of Senator John McCain for the VA to act, awarding English a 100 percent disability rating. A four-year, three-month processing time was reduced to two weeks.

Unfortunately, Dove’s statement about suicide is not an exaggeration. Vets are four times more likely than civilians to kill themselves. Many of them — like Abel Gutierrez, who shot himself in the head; William Hamilton, who stepped in front of a train; or Francis Guilfoyle, who hanged himself from a tree outside a VA office — had turned to the VA for help.

It’s not just the processing time that is angering troops and their families. There’s also an epidemic of missing paperwork and few available medical appointments. “Martin Samuelson” recalls being turned away from appointments because his files were missing, and being told he’d have to visit the emergency room to get a tube of skin cream. “That takes half the fucking night,” Samuelson says.

“And you’re in the way when there are legitimate emergencies like guys going into cardiac arrest and shit.” Although he endured a long wait for his own disability application to be reviewed, Samuelson gets most incensed when he talks about working at one particular VA office installing electrical outlets: “We did the work at night, and about every fucking sixth office we went into, we turned on the lights and the motherfuckers [the night staff meant to be processing applications] were sleeping!”

“Ridge Andrews” details what he considers to be a recurring pattern of bureaucratic mismanagement: “You take the day off work, drive four hours to [the VA hospital]. only to be told after waiting that they don’t have the right equipment. Or you find out they canceled the appointment and didn’t tell you, but the next available appointment isn’t for five months.”

What makes contact with the VA all the more upsetting is that — at least from the perspective of veterans — there are no clear rules governing how benefit allocation is decided. Andrews received medical care for his traumatic brain injury, but not disability compensation. “I put in an appeal,” Andrews says, “but it’s been so long, I’m probably lost in the system. It’s been three years.”

Troops with similar conditions to one another often end up with wildly different outcomes; an injury that doesn’t warrant medical care for one veteran will yield 50 percent disability compensation for another vet. Sometimes an injury that’s deemed serious by the Department of Defense is ignored by the VA. Consider “Sean Grantham,” who was medically discharged from the Army for injuries sustained in Afghanistan, only to be told by the VA that those same injuries weren’t eligible for post-service medical care. “The VA said my injuries were not combat-related.” It’s no secret that the Department of Defense and the VA have separate evaluation systems and often don’t come to the same conclusion, and that the two entities don’t share information.

The million-dollar question, of course, is how did the VA get so fucked up? As Martin Samuelson so adeptly puts it, “We’re a decade into this war now. I can understand growing pains if this is year one or year two, but we’re a decade in. How the hell is it that they’re still so screwed up?”

In part, the overall deluge of applicants is because many wounds that killed soldiers in wars past are no longer fatal, thanks to advances in battlefield medical technology, body armor, and blast-protected vehicles. Soldiers are seriously wounded, but alive. And those wounded vets have complex claims. On average, each claim for disability compensation involves no fewer than ten separate ailments, each of which needs to be evaluated by a specialist. And when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of claims, that takes time. Lots and lots of time.

Of course, the government never anticipated the mission in either Iraq or Afghanistan lasting a decade, never anticipated so many wounded soldiers. The government never bothered to invest the VA with the technology or infrastructure that would allow it to easily process a million claims in a single calendar year. The result is an organization attempting far too late to transform from a system rooted in paper files and bureaucratic processes to one based on integrated technologies and customer service.

Troops we promise to care for if they protected us aren’t getting the help they need when they need it. And the big onslaught is yet to come.

And while the VA is struggling to keep up with the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan vets, it’s also continually expanding the pool of potential applicants; in 2010, after decades of advocacy and legal action by veterans groups, former VA chief Eric Shinseki decided to begin taking disability applications for Vietnam veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange and were experiencing migraines, cancer, and respiratory illnesses. It’s difficult to know whether illnesses suffered by sixty-something Vietnam vets are due to Agent Orange exposure some 40 years earlier, but in 2011 alone, the VA accepted some 240,000 disability claims for Agent Orange exposure.

(Agent Orange exposure is classified by the VA as a “presumptive illness,” meaning that any service personnel who even briefly set foot in Vietnam during specified dates are able to apply for disability compensation without having to prove exposure, a legal burden which would be almost impossible for claimants to meet given the loss of records from that era, and the government’s longtime reluctance to come clean about the extent to which Agent Orange was used as a defoliant during the war.)

The VA cites this continually expanded pool of applicants as a justification for the protracted wait times. In its defense, it points to a number of pilot programs-including digital processing and integration with the Department of Defense — that should speed up processing times, and says it hopes to have its backlog completely eliminated within three years. It can’t be ignored, however, that this is what the VA said in 2007.

The oversize elephant in the room that no one is talking about is that some vets are abusing the system.

Consider that, by May 2012, more than 200,000 veterans had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’s likely that a sizable percentage will qualify for benefits.

(More than 130,000 currently receive benefits.) In part, this is due to the rising popularity of PTSD as a buzz-word. The media has reported that soldiers have been reluctant to seek help, particularly while they’re still serving, and well-meaning campaigns have pushed active-duty personnel and veterans to be treated for it. As Ridge Andrews remarks, “The VA and the military are pushing everyone to go for PTSD, so everyone getting out either thinks they have it or thinks they need to file for it.”

Ironically, the rules pertaining to disability applications for PTSD were lessened, with the benefit of doubt being given to the soldier, precisely to ensure that cases weren’t being overlooked. But it’s possible that easing the rules on PTSD has resulted in so many applicants that physically wounded warriors are getting lost in the shuffle. (A 2005 congressional bill that would have investigated fraudulent claims of PTSD was never passed by the House.)

Jason Kalb, a former soldier who now works for the VA to determine eligibility, had this to say: “Are there legitimate cases? You bet. Are there vets trying to scam the system? Absolutely. I was an infantryman in the middle of a combat zone in the middle of nowhere; my service was a lot different from some pencil pusher. Guys will ask me what they need to do to file a claim. A guy will hear that one guy gets this much money, so he wants it, too. It’s a lot of jealousy, greed, and looking for free money. I hear guys talking about how to word their statements or how to act and dress for exams. PTSD has become a punch line in the VA. But if someone files a claim, it has to be examined. Fake or not, it has to be seen. Golden goose, you say? Fucking right. Single veterans rated at 100 percent service-connected disability get $2,800 a month for life, tax-free, and they can still have a job. Anyone will try to get points for that kind of money, myself included. I have filed for disability. Why not? I served. I had to see what they would give me. I was only denied one thing, and I’m in the middle of an appeal process.”

The VA also has to sort out the real from the fake when it comes to bad backs, ankles, shoulders, and other physical ailments. Former airman “Jeremy Guzman” receives $129 a month on a 10 percent disability rating for screwing up his ankle playing football. He says, “Am I proud that I’m manipulating a system for money and health care? Especially when there are many other veterans that need it worse than me? No, not really.”

This is what makes the VA’s job so difficult: having to discern between injuries that were received in the line of service and injuries from, say, playing high school football. The VA has to distinguish those cases where the nation owes the returning vet care for harm done in a combat zone, and those vets who are attempting to get a pre- or post-service injury covered by the taxpayer.

This is how you get a clusterfuck. There’s no elegant way to express it, no pretty label to stick on top. The VA is an underfunded, inefficient relic of an earlier time. It’s a paper-and-pencils organization attempting to process a million claims a year, some of which are suspect, and some of which are dire emergencies. The point is, the troops we promised to care for if they protected us aren’t getting the help they need when they need it. And, according to Jason Hansman of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, “The big onslaught isn’t even coming yet. A lot of troops are still in the military. When we wind down in Afghanistan and everyone gets out, we’re going to see a lot more vets filing claims.”

NOTE: *some names in this article have been changed.* The author is an infantry vet from the U.S. Army who served in Afghanistan and receives 10 percent disability compensation for constant back pain. …

Of course this exposé originally pubished ten years ago, and in theory things have improved in our treatment of veterans. Should it interest you, we have even run a couple of updates in these pages, one specifically about VA Care and another about recent evolutions in the government taking responsibility for Burn Pits, just to name a couple. Both of those articles have resources linked at the bottom. There are many specific organization helping various niche veterans easily found, but you can always start at the official site and work your way from there. In this case, Google is your friend.

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