The Changing Veteran Poses Challenges For The VA

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First of a five-part series

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki i

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has the cumbersome challenge of moving the department into the 21st century. He has a long to-do list, including decreasing the massive backlog of claims, improving access to health care for veterans in rural areas and improving care for female veterans. Rob Carr/AP hide caption

toggle caption Rob Carr/AP
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has the cumbersome challenge of moving the department into the 21st century. He has a long to-do list, including decreasing the massive backlog of claims, improving access to health care for veterans in rural areas and improving care for female veterans.

Rob Carr/AP

Carolyn Schapper was an Army sergeant who served in Iraq with a military intelligence unit north of Baghdad. Today, several years out of uniform, she keeps up with veterans online — on Facebook, blogs and chat groups.

Schapper taps on her computer at her kitchen table and pulls up a community on the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America site.

"They've got 11 people online now doing a chat," she says of the nonprofit group. "So there are about seven different groups that didn't exist three years ago that you can start communicating with people online."

She says that veterans of today don't go to American Legion halls or the VFW for a drink and a game of pool. They've created a virtual community.

"It's a way to find answers to the issues we're dealing with, problems, how to navigate the VA," she says.

Today's Veteran

Schapper, 37, is a California native who joined the Army National Guard after picking up her master's degree in international relations from Boston University. She deployed to Iraq during the height of the insurgency in 2006. During that year, she would go outside the wire to villages, trying to get information from Iraqis.

War Veterans In The U.S.

She's pretty typical of today's veteran. Most are in their 20s and 30s. About 12 percent are female. Many are alive because of advances in battlefield medicine: They're surviving serious wounds, but returning with more physical problems — head injuries, missing limbs. And nearly half of them come home with some type of mental disorder, like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Schapper is among those diagnosed with PTSD.

"Well, this one was about a nightmare I had," she says, with a nervous chuckle, as she reads from a blog post.

In her nightmare, she drives over a roadside bomb, something that happened in real life three different times in Iraq. This nightmare blast kills another woman she was riding with, who in the dream somehow transforms into a Barbie doll.

"I woke up with the image in my mind of me sitting next to dead Barbie, one hand still detached," she says, reading the blog post. "I was clenching my jaw so tightly during this dream that every single one of my teeth hurt. Every single one."

Schapper still has nightmares. But she's getting treatment and has a good job. Many other veterans aren't as fortunate.

"The unemployment rate for our young veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is now over 21 percent," says Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA).

Murray said at a recent hearing that veterans often leave their combat duty off their resumes. "And I asked them why and they said because it went to the bottom of the stack," she says. "They didn't know if it was the stigma of the invisible wounds of war. But they were finding that from many employers."

Moving The VA Into The 21st Century

Sitting in front of Murray at the hearing was Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. He served as the Army's top general until 2003. He's also a Vietnam veteran who was seriously wounded, losing part of his foot to a land mine.

Shinseki hears stories like these and Schapper's all the time.

"Veterans are a disproportionate share of the nation's homeless, jobless, mental health depressed patients, substance abusers, suicides," Shinseki told Murray and the other senators. "And so the issue is what happened here. Something happened. And that's what we're about is to try and figure this out."

Shinseki, who has received billions more dollars in funding than in the past, has to somehow move the cumbersome VA bureaucracy into the 21st century.

Rep. John Hall (D-NY), who sits on the Veterans' Affairs Committee, thinks Shinseki can do it. He says Shinseki is a leading voice on veterans' issues. "He's highly respected among military and veterans communities, and I think with the public at large," he says.

Hall says VA workers continue to get rewarded despite the poor customer service. There's a huge backlog in claims. Veterans have to wait months for their compensation.

"I want to see bonuses because the backlog's coming down," Hall says. "Because the average wait time is shorter because veterans are getting taken care of faster."

What's On The To-Do List

The bad news is, Shinseki has a long to-do list.

The massive backlog is on the top of the list. Hundreds of thousands of vets are waiting for a check to compensate them for their war wounds. On average, each claim drags on more than five months.

Iraq veteran Brian Hawthorne plays that waiting game. He's now a student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. And he's been waiting two years for VA bureaucrats to process his claim for PTSD.

Hawthorne says veterans just want a fair shake from the VA. "We have to realize that if the VA's not your friend, who is?" says Hawthorne, 25, who was awarded a Bronze Star for saving the life of a fellow soldier. "No one's going to take care of us for the rest of our lives."

Shinseki has vowed to cut the amount of time vets like Hawthorne have to wait. The VA has hired hundreds more claims workers to chip away at the backlog. It's also shifting from paper records to electronic ones.

So that's one problem. Next on the list? Access to health care. More than one-third of all veterans live in rural areas, sometimes hours away from VA hospitals.

"The logical solution is to build a bunch more hospitals. Well, that's not entirely feasible," says Tom Tarantino, of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "So they're going to have to get more creative and reach out to veterans who live in rural areas."

The VA is creating storefront clinics outside major cities. It's purchasing medical vans to bring counselors to vets in less populated counties. Tarantino and others say the department has a long way to go.

Issues Specific To Women

Another issue is how to care for female veterans. The VA lacks everything from obstetrician-gynecologists to group therapy sessions just for women.

Schapper, the Iraq veteran who goes online for help, says she asked a counselor at the Washington, D.C., VA hospital for a women's-only session.

"Would it be OK if we had like a half-hour after the entire group met for just the women? To deal with some of the different issues we had?" Schapper recalls asking. Schapper says the counselor replied: "'Well I have to get approval for that." Schapper says the counselor never got back to her.

Another problem is that the women's clinic at the VA hospital is all the way in the back of the building.

"A young female veteran walking through the VA is very aware of herself, cause it's mostly Vietnam veterans. All their heads turn and they're all watching you," Schapper says. "It's very uncomfortable walking all the way to the back of the hospital to get to this clinic. Because if you have experienced military sexual trauma that's the last thing you're going to want to do."

Schapper has a simple solution: Why not open a separate entrance to the women's clinic?

Other problems facing the VA aren't as simple to solve. There are more than 100,000 homeless veterans. And the veterans' unemployment rate is double the national average.

They're all challenges competing to get to the top of Shinseki's to-do list.



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