After combat, a wait: Veterans face months of uncertainty on disability claims

Jeff Severns Guntzel
Senior reporter
Public Insight Network
Samara Freemark
Reporter
Public Insight Network

Army reservist Joseph Blunn came back from his first deployment to Iraq in 2004 a lost man, plagued by nightmares, frayed nerves and bouts of inexplicable anger. He tried to readjust to life at home, but couldn’t — and two years after his return, Blunn found himself sitting alone on the floor of his bedroom, playing a solo game of Russian roulette with his revolver. He called the police and asked them to take him away.

Joseph Blunn (left, pictured alongside Spc. Andrew Mangold at Camp Stryker in Baghdad) served two tours in Iraq as an Army reservist. After years of struggle post-deployment, he was diagnosed with PTSD.  (Photo shared by Joseph Blunn)

Staff Sgt. Joseph Blunn (left, pictured alongside Spc. Andrew Mangold at Camp Stryker in Baghdad) served two tours in Iraq as an Army reservist. After two years of struggle following his first deployment, he was diagnosed with PTSD. (Photo shared by Joseph Blunn)

Counselors at Blunn’s local Veterans Affairs office diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. His PTSD can be crushing: At times, Blunn is leveled by guilt or sadness; loud noises send him reeling. Working and studying are difficult, and in May of this year — after a second tour in Iraq — he filed a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Denver asking for disability benefits. He hasn’t heard anything since.

“I’m in the dark,” he says. “I just have no idea when I’m going to hear anything.”

Like Blunn, American troops are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan only to wait in line. They’re joining a growing queue of veterans seeking compensation — payments and other support — from the Department of Veterans Affairs for service-related disabilities.

Across the country, local VA offices are having a tough time processing the backlog of more than 800,000 disability claims.

In the meantime, veterans wait. It can take months — sometimes more than a year — to find out how much, if at all, they’ll be compensated for health issues related to their service.

Most veterans filing those disability claims wait an average of 257 days, according to a recent report from the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). The wait varies widely from state to state, making a veteran’s ability to secure critical assistance seem almost random. In the fastest offices, like in St. Paul, Minn., they can expect to receive word on their claims in just over 100 days. But travel to VA regional offices in New York, Indianapolis and Waco, Texas, and the wait can stretch to a year or more.

Marine Cpl. Joe Romeo attended the Marine Corps Ball in November 2004 soon after returning from Iraq. (Photo shared by Joe Romeo)

The Public Insight Network is working with CIR to look into why it’s taking so many veterans so long to get their benefits. We’ve been asking current and former members of the military to tell us about their experiences navigating the VA benefits system.

For most of the veterans we heard from, the process has been frustrating, confusing and opaque. Joe Romeo, who served in Iraq as a corporal in the Marines in 2004, waited a year to receive disability benefits. He called the claims process “mind-numbing … a nightmare of paperwork, redundant conversations, and brushoffs.” Other veterans talked of submitting reams of paperwork to the VA and waiting months without receiving a ruling — or even a response.

Jacob Davis, a former Army specialist who lives in San Francisco, filed a benefits claim for PTSD in 2011 after becoming homeless and suicidal. Today, he says he’s trying to get his life back on track. But he feels he’s in limbo.  “My claim has been in the decision phase for months,” he says. “I have called the VA, I have talked to my case worker, and I have done everything in my power to expedite the process. Now all I can do is wait and hope my life does not fall apart before I get paid.”

Rich Rudnick is with the National Veterans Foundation, a nonprofit that helps veterans and their families navigate the VA system. “Getting an answer from the VA about what is going on with a claim is one of the hardest things to do,” he says. “We get calls from somebody who says: ‘You know, I haven’t heard from them for four months, I haven’t heard from them for eight months. What is going on?’”

For the past three years, the VA’s Office of the Inspector General has been conducting reviews of the nation’s 57 regional offices. In the inspection reports, patterns emerge. Phrases like “inaccuracies in processing,” “incorrectly interpreted policy” and “use of inadequate medical examinations” show up over and over again. All of those things contribute to the delays.

The VA's Office of the Inspector General included this photo in its assessment of the VA's Roanoke, Va., regional office. Inspectors found veterans' files stacked on top of already-full filing cabinets throughout the facility. (Photo via Office of Inspector General, Dept. of Veterans Affairs)

The VA’s Office of the Inspector General included this photo in its assessment of the VA’s Roanoke, Va., regional office. Inspectors found veterans’ files stacked on top of already-full filing cabinets throughout the facility. (Photo via Office of Inspector General, Dept. of Veterans Affairs)

In Roanoke, Va., for example, inspectors found paper files — some of them active claims — stacked by the thousands on top of already-full filing cabinets. A structural engineer reported that the sheer weight of it all actually put the building in danger.

In Indianapolis, the OIG found more than 1,200 pieces of claims-related mail sitting in the mailroom, waiting to be matched with veterans’ files. In other regional offices, mail was mis-stamped, misfiled — sometimes just lost. Two-thirds of the regional offices visited failed the mailroom inspection.

Processing errors don’t just contribute to delays; they can sometimes affect the accuracy of the VA’s ruling on a claim. In its review of claims, the inspector general’s office found many examples in which the VA had over-paid veterans. In fact, the office estimates that about $1 billion has been paid out in the past decade because of decisions made without adequate medical evidence. The VA is projected to overpay about the same amount over the next five years if changes aren’t made.

The inspector general’s reports also provide a window into the frustrations of overwhelmed VA employees who struggle to prioritize their many critical responsibilities. The findings point to inadequate supervision and failures of management.

Army Spc. Jacob Davis spent the summer of 2007 deployed to Iraq. He says of this photo: " This is a picture of me enjoying a refreshing beverage before a dangerous mission." (Photo shared by Jacob Davis)

Army Spc. Jacob Davis spent the summer of 2007 deployed to Iraq. He says of this photo: ” This is a picture of me enjoying a refreshing beverage before a dangerous mission.” (Photo shared by Jacob Davis)

“This is a big agency and there are a lot of rules — a lot of different types of claims, and each claim has their own unique rules,” says Brent Arronte, who heads two of the inspector general’s inspection teams. “What we see predominantly is supervisors that do not perform effective oversight of their work processes.”

The VA declined an interview on the subject, but in prepared remarks, spokesman Craig Larson called the delays “unacceptable,” and said a new computer system, designed specifically to “deliver faster, better decisions,” is scheduled to be installed in all VA regional offices by the end of 2013.

Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, has said he wants to see processing of all claims completed within 125 days by the end of 2015. The national average, according to the inspector general’s reports, is twice that, and new claims are filed every day. The agency expects 1 million active duty personnel to enter the VA system within the next five years.

Meanwhile Jacob Davis, the Iraq war veteran waiting on his PTSD claim in San Francisco, is left with few options. So, like many others, he watches the mail.

“It’s hard when basically my life’s on hold waiting for this money so I can continue to move forward,” says Davis. “I kind of feel like I joined the Army, I served my country, I worked really hard, did my job well. Then I get out and there isn’t any help for me out here. I feel like they paid me with an IOU. I’m basically sitting, waiting, and wishing for something that doesn’t look like it will come through anytime soon.”

>> Help us cover this story: What’s your experience with veteran disability claims?

Jeff Severns Guntzel Senior reporter
Public Insight Network

Jeff Severns Guntzel has reported from the Middle East and points all over the United States for a cadre of publications and news organizations that are not usually mentioned in the same sentence, including Punk Planet Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, Village Voice Media, MinnPost.com and GOOD. He also did time as an editor at Utne Reader.

If he could make you read three things he’s written, it would be this profile of a forensic anthropologist, this brief history of Twin Cities hair metal and this musing on Baghdad before and after the 2003 invasion.

Samara Freemark Reporter
Public Insight Network

Reporter/producer Samara Freemark joined the Public Insight Network after four years at Radio Diaries in New York City, where she spent her time helping ordinary people tell their extraordinary stories for NPR. In the process, she developed an unshakeable belief in the beauty and power of personal narrative.

Before Radio Diaries Samara worked as an environmental reporter, a posting that took her to sinking islands, Superfund sites, and literal snakepits – Burmese pythons, to be exact. She also churned out copy and tape in the newsroom of WUOM Ann Arbor. Before settling on a career in radio she tried out policy research, community organizing, and urban planning before deciding she preferred soundwaves to spreadsheets.