In the 12 years since American troops first deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 2.6 million veterans have returned home to a country largely unprepared to meet their needs. The government that sent them to war has failed on many levels to fulfill its obligations to these veterans as demanded by Congress and promised by both Republican and Democratic administrations, a News21 investigation has found.
Many of these combat veterans, returning from war with what will be lifelong illnesses and disabilities, are struggling to get the help they were promised in the form of disability payments, jobs, health care and treatment for such afflictions as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, physical disabilities and military sexual trauma.
Veterans who survived Taliban and al Qaida attacks, roadside bombs, mortar fire and the deaths of fellow soldiers told News21 that they have returned home to a future threatened by poverty, unemployment, homelessness and suicide. “The hardest thing you can ever do isn’t joining the military. It is hard,” said 30-year-old Luis Duran, a New Yorker who entered the Marine Corps after 9/11, deployed to Iraq and survived a suicide bomb. “The most difficult part is getting out.”
By far, the most vexing and public failure of the federal government has been its inability to distribute timely disability compensation to veterans with physical and mental injuries associated with their service — at a critical point in their transition home.
The News21 investigation found that as the lengthy backlog of delayed and mishandled claims began to surge dramatically, more than two-thirds of the claims processors in the Department of Veterans Affairs collected more than $5.5 million in bonuses.
Claims workers were effectively encouraged, based on a performance “credit system,” to process less-complex claims first, leaving to languish those claims involving multiple war injuries and missing paperwork.
Complex claims, the workers said, require calling and sending follow-up letters to veterans and requesting federal documents and medical records, all of which received zero points on the Veterans Benefits Administration performance evaluation for processors until December 2012, when the system was changed.
A local union representative for Boston claims processors, Roger Moore, said employees set aside complicated claims to preserve their jobs. “It’s like, ‘He’s gotta wait, because I have to get my numbers or my job is in jeopardy,’” Moore told News21.
Members of Congress continue to demand that the claims of the more than 500,000 veterans waiting more than 125 days be processed and paid, but so far the VA’s fixes have not cleared the backlog.
“They (soldiers) were put in these incredibly stressful situations and they also put their civilian jobs and education on hold, so it’s not like they win the lottery when they come back,” said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., of the benefits promised to veterans. “It’s meant to put them back on par with their peers, who had an advantage in the civilian sector while these men and women were gone.”
Large numbers of post-9/11 veterans are seeking treatment and compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, considered nearly epidemic among those veterans. Both are widely claimed as an injury, and they are often difficult to assess and treat.
PTSD and TBI are “the two most prolific wounds coming out of the war,” said retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army from 2008 to 2012 and now CEO of One Mind, a research and advocacy nonprofit for mental health and brain diseases.
“I have to be considered a horrible failure in my ability to get a handle on this problem,” Chiarelli said, noting the number of troops suffering from PTSD and TBI increased dramatically during his tenure.