“We’re coordinating fires,” said Paul Rieckhoff, president of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, whose members were on the Hill last week.
Representatives of Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and the Disabled American Veterans will be coming to Washington in the weeks ahead, and they’re all pushing the same message: The Department of Veterans Affairs disability claims processing system is outmoded and ill-equipped to handle the next generation of America’s vets, including the 35,000 troops who have been wounded in the wars so far.
Veterans groups say tedious forms and a backlog of nearly 1 million claims mean that disabled veterans can be left waiting for months to find out about their disability compensation.
“These folks are fighting overseas, and then they have to come home and fight red tape. It shouldn’t be that hard,” Rieckhoff said. “The average disability claim takes over 150 days. If you appeal, the average is two years. So you have disabled combat vets who are waiting two years for determination.”
By the VA’s own admission, the problem is about to get worse. In 2011, Secretary Eric Shinseki estimates, there will be a 30 percent increase over the number of claims received last year — in part because of the department’s expansion of benefits for Agent Orange-related complications.
The VA’s deputy press secretary, Drew Brookie, says the department is aware the system needs an overhaul.
“There is a family member, husband, wife, son and daughter behind every veteran that uses VA benefits,” he said. “VA does not take that responsibility lightly.”
Brookie points to a number of initiatives launched by the VA — from increased hiring and training to pilot programs meant to streamline and speed the VA’s decision making — as evidence that the department is committed to making improvements.
The Obama administration has asked for an additional $460 million in its fiscal 2011 budget proposal to address the claims backlog. The money would allow the VA to hire more than 4,000 new claims processors.
Veterans groups want to be sure members of Congress hear the message. “Everybody wants to be on the side of veterans, but they need help,” Rieckhoff said. “We’re here to help them understand it’s not just about numbers; it’s about people.”
“We believe the president has committed to reducing backlog and so has Secretary Shinseki, but again we’re not sure we’re on the same page yet, even with the VA,” said Joseph Violante, national legislative director of the DAV. “We want to make sure that through our efforts, members of Congress are educated.”
The DAV will testify before a joint session of House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees on March 2.
On the Hill, IAVA moves with the order and authority of a combat platoon, organizing its members’ visits with lawmakers in a war room set up at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel. Of the organization’s 125,000 members, 28 veterans were selected, based on essays and interviews, to represent the group in Washington. They divided into teams of four when meeting with lawmakers. Each vet was picked because of a personal connection to one of the group’s top legislative priorities — although for many of them, a few or all of the issues on the agenda had touched their lives.
This was especially true of Aimee Sherrod, a 29-year-old mother of two from Bells, Tenn. A veteran of the Air Force from a military family, Sherrod served three tours of duty in Pakistan, Jordan and Iraq for Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Sherrod describes herself at the beginning of her military career as an ambitious, eager soldier, the type who always showed up early with boots polished and uniformed pressed.
But in Jordan, where Sherrod was one of only two women in her unit, she was ostracized by her fellow soldiers. She returned to the United States feeling misanthropic, lost a marriage and began to drink alcohol. It was 2003, and Sherrod hadn’t yet heard of post-traumatic stress disorder. “So I did what every sensible person does, which was volunteer to go to Iraq so I could be normal,” Sherrod said. “Because when you’re deployed and you’re neurotic, it’s completely normal. But when you’re at home and you’re neurotic, it’s not quite normal.”
In Iraq, where Sherrod was part of a search-and-rescue team, she survived a mortar attack that killed a fellow soldier. Suddenly, the mundane details of military life seemed unimportant. “People are getting killed, and you want me to shine my boots?” she remembers thinking. She was medically discharged from the military with PTSD.
After she came home, Sherrod struggled with feelings of anger and anxiety. The late nights working search-and-rescue had trained her to think that if she fell asleep, someone who needed her might die. She says the VA underrated the severity of her illness, causing her to go untreated until she found a lawyer to correct her disability claim. Further complicating the process was the fact that she was pregnant.
Veterans say the VA has been slow to modernize its hospital system to care for women, who make up 11 percent of the troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Even at the VA women’s clinic in Memphis, Tenn., Sherrod could not get prenatal care.
And when she asked to be admitted because of a nervous breakdown, the VA hospital told her it was not equipped to handle a pregnant patient.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who met with Sherrod and other veterans last week, said he would be following up on the issues they discussed in meetings with members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
“I think her story was one that needs telling,” said Van Hollen. “More members on the Hill need to hear it.”