The Washington Post: By Josh White
Nation & World: Monday, October 04,
Thousands of U.S. troops returning from Iraq
and Afghanistan with physical injuries and mental-health problems are
encountering an overburdened benefits system, and officials and veterans groups
worry the challenge could grow as the nation remains at war.
disability-benefits and health-care systems that provide services for about 5
million U.S. veterans have been overloaded for decades, with a current backlog
of more than 300,000 claims. As of Aug. 1, nearly 150,000 National Guard and
reservist veterans became eligible for health care and benefits because they
were mobilized to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. That number is rising.
President Bush's budget for 2005 calls for cutting the Department of
Veterans Affairs staff that handles benefits claims, and some veterans report
long waits for benefits and confusing claims decisions.
"I love the
military; that was my life. But I don't believe they're taking care of me now,"
said Staff Sgt. Gene Westbrook, 35, of Lawton, Okla. Paralyzed in a mortar
attack near Baghdad in April, he has received no disability benefits because his
paperwork is missing. He is supporting his wife and three children on his
regular military pay of $2,800 a month as he awaits a ruling on whether he will
receive $6,500 a month from the VA for his disability.
end of April, the most recent accounting the VA could provide, 166,334 veterans
of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan had separated from military service, and
26,633 — 16 percent — had filed benefits claims with the VA for
service-connected disabilities. Less than two-thirds of those claims had been
processed, leaving more than 9,750 recent veterans waiting.
expect those numbers to increase as the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan
"I think we're doing OK now, but I am worried," VA
Secretary Anthony Principi said in a recent interview.
One of the
most challenging elements of providing for recently returned veterans is the
disconnect between the Defense Department and the VA, Principi said. His
department has been working to streamline the process, he said, placing VA staff
members at 136 bases nationwide and at military medical centers.
people like Westbrook still fall into a no man's land.
deployed to Iraq in January as a drill sergeant, sent to train Iraqi army
recruits. While on duty April 28 south of Sadr City in Baghdad, he was hit by a
mortar shell, and the shrapnel severed his spine. He is paralyzed from the chest
down, has limited movement in his right arm and battles constant infections. His
wife takes care of him full time.
Though Westbrook praises the way
the Army has treated him since his injury, including providing excellent medical
care, he has struggled to make it on his regular pay since he returned July 14.
"They're supposed to expedite the process, and they have not done
that," he said, adding that officers in his Army unit have been trying in vain
to help. Charities have been set up in his honor to help defray costs.
"It's very draining, because I don't know what to do and my family is
asking when we'll get the money," he said. "It's the hardest part about this
What injured or ill veterans are finding when they return from
overseas is a complex set of government processes for reviewing whether they
will get financial help. They must navigate two of the largest U.S. government
bureaucracies in the VA and the Pentagon, and multiple medical-review boards
assess the extent of their injuries.
Even with the current backlog
and the prospect of staffing cuts, VA officials are trying to increase the
department's visibility, reaching out to new veterans to make sure they are
aware of the services they can receive.
Principi said he recently
sent letters to 178,000 veterans explaining benefits. The department is trying
to keep wait times down by giving recent veterans higher priority, aiming for
benefit claims that are filled within 100 days, he said. Currently, the VA takes
about 160 days per claim, and 60,000 to 70,000 new claims come in each month.
There is also a more concerted effort to identify veterans with
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that experts estimate affects
15 percent of veterans. Principi said he thinks mental-health concerns could
become a dominant issue for the VA as insurgent warfare places new pressures on
U.S. troops and society places more emphasis on mental health.
Government Accountability Office report issued Sept. 20 concluded that the VA
does not have enough information to determine if it can handle a rush of PTSD
"The system is already strained, and it's going to get
strained even worse," said David Autry, a spokesman for Disabled American
Veterans. "It's not a rosy picture at all, and they can't possibly hope to say
they're going to provide timely benefits to the new folks if they can't provide
timely care to the people already in the system."
Rating a disability
the VA's system for evaluating disability claims can be the most frustrating
element. Through the end of August, the agency had about 330,000 cases waiting
to get a "rating," or a percentage figure approved by an evaluation board that
decides how much a disabled veteran will receive monthly from the VA.
The ratings system uses a complex guide to calculate, for example, how disabling
it is to lose a foot or to be blinded in one eye. Soldiers are rated from zero
percent to 100 percent disabled, and compensation varies from nothing to
thousands of dollars each month. Those rated 100 percent disabled are eligible
to receive indefinite monthly payments aimed at allowing them to live without
Decisions can take months as the board weighs the severity
of injuries and makes sure they were suffered while the veteran was in the
service. Appeals of such decisions can take years.
takes six months to a year to get your claim decided, sometimes longer," said
Cathy Wiblemo, deputy director for health care at the American Legion.
"We never think it's enough," Wiblemo said of disability payments.
"It's hard to say that any amount of money can compensate for what these people
have lost in defending our country."