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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. All this week, we'll be exploring how America cares for its veterans. We begin our series with some fundamental changes within the veteran population.

Today's vets are younger. More of them are women. They've often suffered more serious war wounds than vets in the past. And now, as NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman reports, they must learn to navigate a system, the Department of Veterans Affairs, that is struggling to remake itself.

TOM BOWMAN: American Legion Post 24 in Alexandria, Virginia, has the informal charm of a basement rec room.

(Soundbite of pool balls cracking)

BOWMAN: There's a pool table.

Unidentified Man #1: And the one night I don't have my coin in my pocket.

BOWMAN: At this small bar, club manager Neal Hergenrather(ph) pours drinks and jokes with fellow veterans from Vietnam, Korea and World War II. The walls are covered with old recruiting posters, old photos. Hergenrather, a lanky Navy veteran of Vietnam, shows me a faded piece of paper set in a frame.

Mr. NEAL HERGENRATHER (Club Manager, American Legion Post 24): Okay, this is a certificate from Charles Lindbergh.

BOWMAN: Is that his signature?

Mr. HERGENRATHER: That is his signature, yes.

BOWMAN: Do you have any young veterans that are part of the post here?

Mr. HERGENRATHER: We have a few. I can think of maybe five to 10 at this stage.

BOWMAN: Out of what, 600, something like that?

Mr. HERGENRATHER: Out of 650.

Unidentified Man #2: A good shot and you can get them all in two pockets.

BOWMAN: That's because young veterans aren't meeting over games of pool at legion halls. They're meeting online.

Ms. CAROLYN SCHAPPER (Former Sergeant, United States Army): Let's see what's going on IAVA today, community of veterans.

BOWMAN: That's Carolyn Schapper at her home computer. Schapper's been out of the military for several years but keeps up with other veterans in chat groups.

Ms. SCHAPPER: So there's about seven different groups that didn't exist three years ago that you can start communicating with people online.

BOWMAN: The veterans of today, your friends, they tend to go online. They've created sort of a virtual community, haven't they?

Ms. SCHAPPER: You've hit it there is that we go online for sense of community, a way to find answers to the issues we're dealing with, problems, how to navigate the VA.

BOWMAN: Schapper has long, reddish hair and glasses. She picked up her master's in international relations before joining the Army National Guard. Then Schapper deployed to Iraq with a military intelligence unit during the height of the insurgency. During that year, she would go outside the wire to villages, trying to get information from Iraqis.

And she's pretty typical of today's veteran. 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. Carolyn Schapper's been diagnosed with PTSD.

Ms. SCHAPPER: Well, this one was about a nightmare I had.

BOWMAN: She wrote about it in a blog post. In her nightmare, she drives over a roadside bomb, something that happened for real 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.

Ms. SCHAPPER: I woke up with the image in my mind of me sitting next to dead Barbie, one hand still detached. I was clenching my jaw so tightly during this dream that every single one of my teeth hurt, every single one.

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

The man trying to help them is Eric Shinseki, the secretary of Veterans Affairs. He used to be the Army's top general. He's also a Vietnam veteran who himself was seriously wounded, losing part of his foot to a landmine. Shinseki hears stories like Carolyn Schapper's all the time. He talked about it on Capitol Hill recently.

Secretary ERIC SHINSEKI (Department of Veterans Affairs): Veterans are a disproportionate share of the nation's homeless, jobless, mental health depressed patients, substance abusers, suicides. And so the issue is: What happened here? Something happened. And that's what we're about is to try and figure this out.

BOWMAN: But can Shinseki figure it out? He's received billions more dollars in funding. He has to somehow move the cumbersome VA bureaucracy into the 21st century.

Congressman John Hall of New York thinks Shinseki can do it. He's a Democrat who serves on the Veterans Affairs Committee.

Representative JOHN HALL (Democrat, New York): The good news is Secretary Shinseki, he's highly respected among both military and veterans communities and I think with the public at large.

BOWMAN: The bad news: Shinseki has a long to-do list. Top of the list: a massive backlog. 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.

Mr. BRIAN HAWTHORNE (Veteran; Student, George Washington University): We have to realize that if the VA's not your friend, who is? I mean, no one else is going to take care of us for the rest of our lives.

BOWMAN: 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.

Mr. TOM TARANTINO (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association): The logical solution is to just build a bunch more hospitals. Well, that's not entirely feasible.

BOWMAN: That's Tom Tarantino of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association, a nonprofit group.

Mr. TARANTINO: So they're going to have to start getting more creative to reach out to the veterans that live in rural areas.

BOWMAN: The VA is creating storefront clinics outside major cities, purchasing medical vans to bring counselors to vets in less populated counties. Tarantino and others say they have a long way to go.

Another issue: how to care for women veterans. The VA lacks everything from OB-GYNs to group therapy sessions just for women. When I was talking with Carolyn Schapper, the Iraq veteran who goes online for help, she told me about asking a counselor at the Washington, D.C., VA hospital for a women's-only session.

Ms. SCHAPPER: Would it be okay 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? And she said, well, I have to get approval for that. And she never got back to me.

BOWMAN: And the women's clinic at the VA hospital is all the way in the back of the building.

Ms. SCHAPPER: A young female veteran walking through the VA is very aware of herself because it's mostly Vietnam vets. All their heads turn, they're all watching you, and so it's uncomfortable to walk to the back of a 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.

BOWMAN: 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 - all challenges competing to get to the top of Secretary Shinseki's to-do list.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

NORRIS: Our series on new veterans continues tomorrow with one of the other items on that list: the battle to get compensation from the VA.

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