Local veterans filing disability claims with the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) benefits office in Buffalo wait on average 311 days to learn whether they qualify for disability payments. Veterans in Cleveland wait 463 days. In Indianapolis, it’s 488 days. And in New York City, it’s 501 days. This seems like a very long wait for disability, yet when veterans finally learn how much disability they qualify for, and they disagree with the percentage of the service-related disability, a bureaucratic labyrinth awaits.
President Obama and VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki say the backlog of pending claims, nearly half a million, is steadily decreasing because the BA is working more efficiently. The goal is to eliminate the backlog by 2015, and give veterans answers on their claims within 125 days. They plan to do this by effectively sorting through the claims that have been filed, and moving new claims into their digital system that has been reported to be much faster and easier to use.
But for Kenneth W. Waite, a former Marine from Jamestown who served three tours of duty in the Vietnam War, he feels he is fighting a losing battle to get 100 percent disability for his post-traumatic stress disorder that he says makes him unemployable.
“The VA says they’re only 300 and some days behind. But they are three years behind in my case,” Waite said of his disputed claim.
As veterans are waiting for their disability to go through, and waiting again as it doesn’t pass the first time, life goes on. Life can be financially crippled for so many veterans who need help, but can’t get it. Buffalo attorney Jeffrey M. Freedman, who specializes in disputed compensation cases, says his office receives more than 50 calls a week from area veterans seeking help with their claims.
“Helping these clients is like wrestling with an elephant or rolling a large boulder up a hill,” Freedman said. “The soldier who is shot on the battlefield can fight three to five years to get a disability check.”
And that is why there is so much concern. No one wants to end up in a drawn-out fight that takes a toll not only financially, but causes “stress that contributes to further health problems,” Freedman said.
In 2012, the VA’s Board of Veterans Appeals ruled that nearly 3 in 4 appealed claims brought before it contained inaccurate or insufficient information. Such cases are sent back to the VA office where it originated to fix the problems. Once a case is referred back to the regional office, they go in a pile with all the other claims. At present, the appeals board is handling 47,000 disputed cases, including Waite’s.
Waite, 68, says he may end up dying before he sees a penny from the government for his disabilities. He filed his claim in January of 2010, after the VA diagnosed him with PTSD connected with his wartime service. He has had emotional problems for his entire adult life, he says, but has roughed it out on his own. His claim was completed in June of that year with a determination that he was 30 percent disabled. Looking back over his life, he realized that his condition had created hardships that had ultimately turned him into almost a hermit.
Waite tells how he’s had nine or ten different jobs, has trouble getting along with people, gets upset real easy, and stays up late at night, for no reason, just lying in his bed. That is quite the opposite of the person he used to be in High School, where he played numerous sports and the trumpet and tuba in the band. But in February, 1963, his world changed. He enlisted in Marine Corps and was among the first major waves of troops to enter Vietnam.
By his third tour of duty there, he says, the danger had increased dramatically. He had begun that final tour weighing 160 pounds. By the end of it, he weighed 130. He never regained the weight and now sees that as a symbol of his troubled life.
Waite was diagnosed with PTSD more than three years ago, and has since joined a veteran’s support group who encouraged him to challenge the 30 percent disability rating. The increased monthly compensation would be substantial, he said. He currently gets by on $1,200 in Social Security each month.
Waite says he hopes the VA will act on his appeal before he dies.