American troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan are
joining a growing queue of veterans seeking compensation — payments and other support — for service-related disabilities from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Across the country, local VA offices are struggling under a backlog of more than 800,000 disabilities claims. In the meantime, veterans wait.
These are some of their stories. (Scroll down to hear their voices.)
“I DON’T HAVE TOO MUCH CONFIDENCE IN THE VA BEING ABLE TO SUPPLY THE HELP I NEED”
Staff Sgt. Joseph Blunn, who lives in Denver, served in the Army Reserves in Iraq in 2003-04. Here, he’s standing alongside Spc. Andrew Mangold at Camp Stryker in Baghdad, waiting to head out on the final mission of their tour.
When he got back to the United States, Blunn had trouble adjusting. After a suicide attempt in 2006, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and received treatment from counselors at his local VA office in Denver – treatment he describes as prompt and effective, and which he credits with saving his life.
In 2010, Blunn deployed again, and when he returned home to Denver, he again sought treatment for PTSD. This time, it took months to see a doctor.
Blunn filed a claim for disability benefits in May 2012. In September, he’s still waiting to hear back from the VA.
(Photo shared by Joseph Blunn)
“I FEEL LIKE THEY PAID ME WITH AN I.O.U.”
Jacob Davis is a former Army specialist who lives in San Francisco.
Davis deployed to Baghdad for the 2007-08 troop surge. Here he is in the summer of 2007, “enjoying a refreshing beverage before a dangerous mission.”
Coming home was difficult: Pop culture seemed stupidly trivial; he didn’t know how to talk to his friends anymore; he was angry all the time.
In 2010 Davis moved to an isolated cabin in the mountains and “kind of became a hermit,” he says. He became suicidal, and in December of 2010 was admitted to the VA’s PTSD treatment program in Menlo Park, Calif.
He filed a benefits claim for PTSD in 2011, and hasn’t received a ruling yet.
(Photo shared by Jacob Davis)
“WITHOUT THEM, I DON’T KNOW IF I EVER COULD’VE NAVIGATED THE CLAIMS PROCESS”
Master Sgt. Bart Bird served more than twenty years in the military, including a tour in Baquba, Iraq (pictured), in 2004. When he retired from the Air Force in 2007, with a host of medical problems related to his service, his friends warned him against applying for VA benefits.
“It’s an impossible process,” they told him. “It’s a huge bureaucracy. It’ll make you crazy.”
But a chance meeting at a gas station smoothed the way for him. Bird received his benefits in July 2007 — nine months after he applied.
(Photo shared by Bart Bird)
“I JUST BELIEVED IN THE VA BLINDLY”
Michael Horgen lives in Clear Lake, Minn. He served in the Air Force from 1989-93. (He’s pictured here on a fishing trip with his son, Christian, this month.)
Horgen applied for disability benefits for an injured shoulder in 2010, and found the process to be extremely frustrating. Compiling the necessary medical records to prove his claim was laborious: Horgen says he collected almost 2,500 pages of paperwork from 17 doctors and clinics. In the end, it took the VA 11 months to resolve his claim.
Today, Horgen works at a local VA office – trying to change the system from within, he says.
(Photo shared by Michael Horgen)
More on delays at the Department of Veterans Affairs
After combat, a wait: Veterans face months of uncertainty on disability claims
Explore an interactive map of delays across the country from the Center for Investigative Reporting