Vets' Battle is Just Beginning

Friday, October 12, 2012

The battle was supposed to be over when they came home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, our veterans in need of help are having to fight a war that's even more frustrating - trying to access the services they are due from their own government.

The other day, I was talking to a couple of the guys who lead the local American Legion.

They repeated to me that they are there to help any veteran to find the right avenue, the right person, the right program, or just someone to talk to who knows how they feel. I wondered at that; isn't all that the job of the Veterans Administration and other agencies - the professionals at doing just that?

The look is those guys' eyes told that what they were saying mattered a hell of a lot to them.

Still trying to be good soldiers, they weren't looking to criticize and level of government when it comes to dealing with American veterans. Just tell 'em there's somebody here if they need them.

This isn't my first rodeo. The spider-sense begins to tingle when there's more to a story than I know about.

It didn't take a whole lot of searching to see why we need veterans of past eras to try so hard themselves to fill the gaps for those coming back today.

Let's take a look at what's happening with the VA in Iowa, based in Des Moines.

Right now, 7,230 Iowa veterans are waiting for a response from that one office to their claims for disabilities, injuries or illnesses suffered while in the military. The backlog has skyrocketed almost 20 percent in just the last 18 months.

The veterans waiting in that line often cannot access VA health care or the disability payments they have coming to them.

Listen to this - the average Iowa veteran's wait for a response from the VA on their claim is 278 days! Over nine months? Imagine the government's level of patience if you decided to take 278 days to send in your income tax payment check. The average wait has ballooned over 32 percent in less than a year and a half in Iowa. In some parts of the country, the average wait is now more than a year.

And if a veteran tries to appeal a VA decision on their benefits, in Iowa they will wait an incredible 1,321 days on average - about three years and seven months!

There are 870,000 veterans with some level of disability today, waiting for their government to simply acknowledge they exist. It is scandalous - and neither candidate for president seems to have a plan to improve, or even slow the growth in the problem. Spending $300 million on new computer systems and hiring over 700 new processors that the agency said it needed has done less than nothing.

If any other form of social benefits in our country operated on such a delay, the howl of outrage and entitlement would be huge and instantaneous. But these are veterans, and they don't like to ask for help. No matter how much they have given for their country, they seldom have

any sense of entitlement. They believe in their government and they try to get along until it gets around to them. But that doesn't make it right.

"It's a slap in the face," Adam Fields, a former Marine who has been waiting since November 2010 for a ruling on his claim for benefits for traumatic brain injury, told The Bay Citizen, a publication by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

During his two tours in Iraq, Fields survived

multiple vehicle rollovers and sustained three concussions, which have contributed to persistent short-term memory loss. "Sometimes I get in the car, and I forget where I'm going," said Fields, who supports his wife and 5-year-old son by driving a scrap metal truck. Like many, his home is hours from a VA hospital.

"If the VA approved my claim, I could afford to take time off to get regular treatment," he said.

What are we doing to the people who have sacrificed so much to do their duty for their country?

Thousands of spouses and children left waiting for the survivor benefits that were earned and are in most cases no doubt sorely needed. Thousands of young people's lives in limbo waiting for an answer on the G.I. Bill education benefits they are absolutely due. Aging Vietnam veterans waiting for help in dealing with illnesses now emerging from Agent Orange exposure all of those years ago.

It's not that the VA employees aren't trying - they are overwhelmed. With U.S. involvement in the middle east passing ten years now, the number of claims has increased nearly 50 percent just since 2010. Despite all that computer equipment, we're told the VA won't even have all of its offices computerized until maybe 2015.

Where is the leadership?

Consider the growing number of people with traumatic stress syndrome who are not getting help. Can a tragedy be far off?

"We're seeing people break and snap like we've never seen before," says Shad Meshad, a Vietnam veteran and former combat medic who heads up the National Veterans Foundation.

"When soldiers come home from two, three or four tours with post traumatic stress disorder and hit these kinds of walls, they can get frustrated and just give up," Meshad said.

I spoke to one local veteran who lost her teaching job while deployed. A couple of years later, there is still no work for her, she has to drive to the Sheldon area to work and back each weekend. So much for promises.

You want to talk tragedy, consider: for every serviceman and woman who dies in war this year, 25 will commit suicide back home. More than 6,500 veteran suicides are logged every year - more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since those wars began.

Now I understand the look in those Storm Lake guys' eyes. Why some guys who wear leather and ride motorcycles and flip panakes for fundraisers are so concerned about those who have come after them in serving the flag.

The VA isn't up to the task, not now. All we can hope is that every veteran who needs a friend can find one, every one who needs their benefits can find a path through the minefield of red tape to get them.

Shame on us. America has to do better.