The Department of Veteran Affairs will be the first to say that having veterans waiting for benefits they've earned is absolutely unacceptable. That doesn't help the fact that some veterans have waited more than two years to receive some claims. However there are improvements being made to the benefits system.
ONE VETERAN'S EXPERIENCE
It's was Friday morning when Army Veteran Kathleen Baker dropped into the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center for an exam. It's an ongoing process for the medically discharged mother of two, and while it might be hard to imagine Baker, with her inviting smile and twinkling eyes, outfitted with an M-16, kevlar vest, seven magazines and fully geared rucksack, that's exactly what she wore in Iraq.
"And if you weren't in a hard site building you could not remove your gear because we were getting mortars coming in on a pretty regular basis that year or firefights, we had a few firefights," said Baker.
During her service Baker provided mental health care for detainees at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison right after the abuse scandal broke.
"So I was there for 11 months and I saw 11,000 detainees and I also treated troops and civilians who needed mental health care, which was a very interesting experience," Baker said.
Baker's unit changed the way military prisoners would be treated in the future.
"And we wrote the manuals, the Army manuals, on detainee care, all of them, just the hospitalization care, wound care, mental health care," she said.
With a smile she'll tell you how war changed her way of thinking.
"It's amazing how mortar attacks and bullets whizzing by can make you re-evaluate exactly what you want from life. I was pretty sure I didn't want kids before I went to Iraq and I came back from Iraq pretty sure I wanted children," said Baker.
War also took a toll on her body. The constant weight of her gear ended with two herniated disks in her back.
"I also had some hip bursitis in left and right. I have tinnitus in my ears. I have neuropathy from the sciatica from my back so I have nerve damage in my left leg," said Baker.
Baker was medically discharged in May 2006 and filed for benefits in June of that year. The following January she received an 80-percent disability rating, which means she can't do most of the things she used to enjoy before the war. It also plays into how much she money receives from the VA.
Eight months may seem long a long time to wait for benefits, but thousands of veterans wait much longer. Baker's claim would have processed a lot quicker had it not been for her pregnancy during that period.
WHERE THE BACKLOG ORIGINATED
"Well I think probably the backlogs began in 2009," said Pat Prieb, Director for the Seattle VA Regional Office.
In the last four years the number of claims submitted to the Veterans Benefit Administration has ballooned.
"We've ended 10 years of war many veterans are returning with severe more complex injuries as well as increased demand by our aging veteran population," Prieb said.
From 2009 through 2013, the VA completed a record 4.1 million claims but took in 4.6 million claims, meaning more than half a million veterans had to wait for help.
Another reason for the growth in claims is the expansion of benefits, for veterans from earlier wars, with medical conditions relating to the use of Agent Orange, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Gulf War Illness. The long overdue action has led to nearly a million new claims, meaning veterans filling for supplemental claims are more than double first time claim filers.
Right now, the VA has more than 700,000 pending claims. More than half of them have been backlogged more than 4 months.
"Veterans shouldn't have to wait for the benefits that they've earned. This has never been unacceptable," said Prieb.
WHAT'S BEING DONE ABOUT THE BACKLOG
The VA is implementing new strategies to keep up, including better training for claims processors and people focused initiatives that fast track less complex claims while sending more complex claims to more experienced and skilled processors.
"We do still have work to do, we've made improvements and we are making clear progress," said Prieb.
The VA is also doing away with an antiquated paper filing system and moving to an electronic filing method known as the Veterans Benefits Management System.
"This will improve our timeliness in our processing," said Prieb.
The VA's goal is that by the end of 2015, all claims will be processed within four months. Progress on the backlog is already being made.
VETERANS GETTING A SOLID START ON CLAIMS
Baker says when she was being discharged a fellow soldier gave her invaluable advice on filing a claim.
"When he found out I was coming to Spokane, Washington, he said, 'I have a veteran service officer I want you to contact the minute you get to Spokane,'" said Baker.
A Veteran Service Officer, or VSO, like Gary Roach, from the American Legion.
"The idea behind having us do the claim is that we are the experts on it," Roach said.
Services offered by VSOs are free to veterans and can be found at the VA, American Legion, VFW and DAV offices.
"Before I actually started doing this I had a service connected disability, so I understand how that process works and how frustrating it can be," said Roach.
Their help can shave months off the waiting period for a claim but, more importantly, these are veterans helping veterans. For Baker this was important, especially when trying to file a claim for her PTSD.
"It's really hard to put that down on paper but it's worth it. It's necessary," said Baker.
Because war can't be understood by those watching from afar.
"It's a life altering experience that only other veterans really get," said Baker.
And coming home doesn't mean life returns to normal.
"I'm grateful to the VA. I know some people have had some negative experiences but you have to go in knowing what you want," said Baker.
And that's something benefits can't replace, something not measured in torn muscles or broken bodies.
"You have to give up a certain part of your humanity to make it through," said Baker.
That loss defines sacrifice and while that it can't be replaced, maybe for some veterans, benefits help start the healing process and make coming home that much easier.
"You're never back. I think that was the hardest part. You're not the person you were. You will never be the person you were," said Baker
LOCAL PROGRESS REPORT
At the Seattle Regional Office, claims pending longer then two years numbered 2,616 in fiscal year 2012. By the end of fiscal year 2013, that number was down to three.
In the same time period the average days pending for a claim went from 354.4 down to 165.0, according to numbers posted on November 2, 2013.
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