Veterans Face Red Tape Accessing Disability, Other Benefits On the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, journalist Aaron Glantz talks about the challenges American service members face in accessing disability and other benefits. Glantz says there is a backlog of 900,000 claims and that the average waiting period is 273 days.
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Veterans Face Red Tape Accessing Disability, Other Benefits

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Veterans Face Red Tape Accessing Disability, Other Benefits

Veterans Face Red Tape Accessing Disability, Other Benefits

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Ten years ago today, America invaded Iraq and began what the Bush administration said would be a short war. But it wasn't until December 2011 that America officially ended its military mission there.

In addition to the tens of thousands of Iraqis who died, the war cost the lives of nearly 4,500 American servicemembers and wounded over 32,200 men and women in America's military. About 66,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan.

Many of the wounded vets from those wars have faced or are still facing long waits for their disability and other benefits to begin. My guest, Aaron Glantz, has been using the Freedom of Information Act to investigate why the Veterans Administration is taking so long administering the claims of wounded veterans. Glantz is a reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting and author of the 2009 book "The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans."

He reported from Iraq during the first year of the war, covering the lives of Iraqis. When he returned home, he found it was vets who were most interested in what he was writing about the war, and it was vets who most understood the problems he was having with stress and unusual muscle aches after leaving Iraq. He started seeking out vets and telling their stories, including reporting on the bureaucratic barriers that faced them at home.

Aaron Glantz, welcome to FRESH AIR. So there's about 600,000 veterans who have backlogged claims. How long are the waits now?

AARON GLANTZ: Well, I mean that number, 600,000, is even a little bit misleading. There's 900,000 veterans who are waiting for benefits. The VA in the internal documents that we've obtained is now predicting that will go over a million very soon. They say that 600,000 of them are backlogged. That means that those veterans have been waiting more than four months.

And what we see in the documents is that on average veterans are waiting about 273 days to get their benefits and that veterans filing for the first time, this includes those returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, are waiting far longer.

GROSS: What does that mean practically to a veteran who has made a claim? What does it mean financially and for their health?

GLANTZ: Well, this is primarily disability claims that we're talking about. These are people who have been to war, whether it's Iraq or Vietnam or some other condition, and they come home and they're wounded, and so they can't work. And so they file a disability claim.

So you were in Iraq, you were blown up by a roadside bomb. You have a traumatic brain injury, as hundreds of thousands of returning veterans do. It affects your short-term and long-term memory. It affects your bodily coordination. It gives you horrible migraine headaches, perhaps, and you need to go get health care to get this taken care of from the VA.

But of course you can't afford to get that health care in terms of your time unless you have some money coming in. And so this is very important to preventing veterans from becoming homeless, from becoming destitute, and it's often, you know, welcome home from Iraq, we may or may not be able to get you this help for two years, one year, et cetera.

GROSS: So if your claim is still in limbo, does that mean you're not getting health care from the VA?

GLANTZ: It's complicated. If you have just gotten home from Iraq or Afghanistan, you're just out of the military, you can get health care for the first five years after you get home. On the other hand, after that period of time, the VA system of health care involves a lot of rationing, and there are priority groups. And so if you - if you're in a lower priority group because you do not have a service-connected disability, then you have to pay more for your health care and you may have to wait a lot longer to get it.

And this is a major reason why veterans, you know, really want to get their disability claim approved in addition to, you know, the money that provides for financial stability.

GROSS: So tell us a story about one of the vets who you've written about, whose had - who's been in this kind of limbo.

GLANTZ: In our most recent story I interviewed a veteran named Lincoln Capstick, who lives in Indiana, and he was filing a claim for post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as for a variety of other injuries to his back, to his knees, to his legs, from when he was run over by a contractor's SUV in the desert on the Iraqi-Kuwait border.

During the time that he was waiting on his disability claim, his electricity was cut off three times, and he also got disconnection notices for his water and other basic services. And the documents that we obtained showed that in Indiana, newly returning veterans coming home filing their first claim have to wait over 600 days for their disability compensation.

And that has an extreme effect on people's ability to provide for themselves during these times of crisis when you come. Remember, when you were in the military, you had a job and a paycheck; it was the military. Then you get out of the military, you don't have a paycheck anymore, because you're not in the military. And if you're disabled because of what happened to you in the military, it's very difficult to find a job, especially in this bad economy.

GROSS: You've also reported that over the past three years the number of veterans who are dying before their claims are processed has skyrocketed. That includes vets dying of natural causes and veterans committing suicide.

GLANTZ: Yeah, the VA backlog, as they call it, has gotten so severe that in the last fiscal year there are almost 20,000 veterans where the VA only provided the compensation after the veteran died. So the veteran came forward, he said I deserve compensation for PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, or frequently it's an older World War II veteran who's destitute who's asking for an old-age pension. And the VA takes so long to process these claims that by the time they're done, the veteran is already dead, and the benefits then go to the survivor that the veteran should have had.

GROSS: There's awareness of this problem within the VA, and there's a new $537 million computer system that's supposed to computerize the paperwork and help move things along so that vets get their benefits in a more timely fashion. But you say 97 percent of veterans' claims are still filed on paper. So why isn't this computer system working out as planned yet?

GLANTZ: Well, this is the really frustrating thing for veterans and even members of Congress who are watching this, is the VA under President Obama initiated, shortly after he took office, a variety of programs which were supposed to solve this problem. And at that time there were about 400,000 veterans waiting.

Now, as I said, the VA is projecting that there will be over a million veterans waiting by the end of the year. One of those efforts, which has not worked out so far, is the effort to computerize claims. If you go into any VA office you'll see stacks and stacks of paper, giant manila envelopes going up to the ceiling, sometimes into the hallways.

The VA inspector general reported that at the office in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, there was literally so much paperwork in the office that it was inhibiting the structural integrity of the building. The frustrating thing is President Obama and the VA repeatedly say that they're solving this problem, and they've spend, as you said, half a billion dollars so far to launch this computer system.

But then when you look at the reality on the ground, you see that it has only been deployed to fewer than half of the offices at all and that in those offices a very small number of claims are actually in the computer system. It's full of bugs. There have been a lot of problems, and the agency has not really been able to get it off the ground in a way that it can make a meaningful difference for veterans.

GROSS: What does the VA have to say about why it's taking so long to fulfill veterans' claims?

GLANTZ: Well, the VA says that they are getting more claims than ever before, that that's a combination of the large number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have been coming home, and also some decisions they've made to allow Vietnam veterans to make claims for compensation for some diseases that they are only now acknowledging are caused by Agent Orange, and that they've had a flood of new claims, about a 50-percent increase, and that they're about to solve all these problems, and by 2015 nobody will be waiting more than four months.

The problem is twofold. The first is that under President Obama, the number of veterans who are waiting more than a year, and this was in some of the documents that we obtained, has increased more than 2,000 percent, from 10,000 to 245,000. And this is not at all on the scale of the increase in claims that they've been talking about.

So there is some significant and important bureaucratic dysfunction that is keeping the (technical difficulties) from dealing with this increase in claims and is causing everyone to wait a lot longer than they had under President Bush. And of course when George Bush was president, we had already been in Afghanistan for seven years and had been in Iraq for five years, and he had somehow been able to hold this VA backlog, you know, in check.

GROSS: On the other hand, I think many more troops have been returning home since the Obama administration because the wars have been winding up.

GLANTZ: Yeah, well, it's true that troops continue to come home under President Obama on a rotational basis. So it's not really the case that many more troops have been coming home during his presidency, because the people who - you know, many of the people who were in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 got out of the military in 2003 under Bush, and this just continues to occur on a rolling basis under President Obama.

But, you know, you can also look at it this way: 9/11 was a surprise to America. We responded by going to war in Afghanistan. Two years later we attacked Iraq without preparing to treat the wounded when they came home. By the time President Obama took office in 2009, we had already kind of responded to that lack of preparation. There had been the Walter Reed scandal, that was in 2007, I believe, and new resources were being mobilized.

Since President Obama was elected, further resources have been mobilized. You talked about the computer system. Congress authorized the hiring of thousands of new claims processors at the VA to deal with this influx of claims that we've been discussing. But as we found in the documents that we obtained, the number of claims adjusters has actually only increased by about 300 despite a tremendous amount of money that was appropriated for them to deal with this problem.

And so the real question is, President Obama came in and he made promises of eliminating this backlog, and he had a plan to eliminate the backlog. And he implemented the very steps that he talked about at the time. But here we are five years later and it has simply not worked for veterans.

GROSS: Say there was some kind of like bureaucratic magic wand that we could wave, and all the vets waiting for decisions would get their decision, and probably most of them would get approved for their disability benefits. Would we have the medical resources?

GLANTZ: This has been a problem. The VA is severely understaffed to take care of all of these veterans who are coming home. Last year the VA inspector general found that the average wait time for a mental health appointment was 50 days. So these are people who could be suicidal, and they're waiting, you know, a month and a half or more to get a mental health appointment.

This is not because of malintent. This is because the resources are being rationed because there are not enough providers. The problem is that the VA bureaucracy at the highest levels is so dysfunctional that they've been having difficulty staffing up to meet these needs even when Congress gives them the resources.

So they said about a year ago that they would hire 1,600 new mental health professionals nationally to deal with this influx of people seeking mental health care so people wouldn't have to wait so long. But recently they reported that while they had exceeded their goal in hiring administrative staff to oversee the mental health program, they had only hired half of the psychiatrists that they promised.

So it's two things. You know, one is there's not enough money to hire enough people to care for all these folks. But the bigger problem, I think, is even when money is made available, the agency just completely drops the ball and is unable to field the resources, you know, at the ground level so the veteran can actually access them.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Aaron Glantz. He's a reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting and author of the book "The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Aaron Glantz, and he's a reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting and author of the book "The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans." And he's been investigating the VA and why vets have to wait so long for their claims to be processed to get the benefits that they should be getting.

You've spoken to many veterans who are, you know, filing for disability with the VA. What's the paperwork like that vets have to fill out when they come home and they have, you know, a disabling injury or illness?

GLANTZ: You know, the VA has actually streamlined some of the paperwork that veterans have to fill out under Obama. They used to fill out these like incredible mountain of forms to get any benefits. Now the forms that they have to fill out themselves are fairly small. The issue comes in to getting the records from the military that prove their military service, to getting their medical files transferred over to the VA office.

All of this, as I said, is being done on paper. So the paper piles that I'm talking about are actually at the VA office. And so let's say that I'm a veteran and I submitted paperwork saying that I have a traumatic brain injury from getting hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq and I have no short-term memory, and I have horrible migraine headaches, and I'm actually going to the VA for medical treatment and there's plenty of VA medical records that show that I have these conditions and I got them in the war.

So this should be a slam dunk. The VA should be able to approve my disability benefits, you know, in a week or less because it's all coming to them on a silver platter. The problem is the worker over at the VA has this tremendous stack of paperwork from all of the evidence that I've been describing, and often they can't find the traumatic brain injury in the mountain of medical records that have been submitted for this gentleman.

And so what they end up doing frequently is writing to the veteran, asking them to resend the same medical records all over again. And this is just one example of how, you know, the bureaucratic dysfunction hurts individual veterans, and it's especially bad, you know, for people who are living on the margins.

I remember this veteran that I talked to some years ago, James Egameyer(ph), he lived in Stuart, Florida, and he was living out of his truck because he couldn't get his VA benefits. Then, you know, he was self-medicating and he crashed his truck. And then he would have been literally homeless on the streets of Florida if he did not get some help from the community.

Well, during this time, of course the VA is sending him letters, saying oh, you need to go to a subsequent medical appointment. He's fallen so far off the grid that he's now not even living in his truck. He can't get these records. And so the VA is then, you know, denying his claim on the basis that he didn't show up at his medical appointment.

This is the kind of stuff that happens out there in the real world all the time, and it was happening under President Bush, but it happens a lot more now under President Obama.

GROSS: One of the issues that you write about is that many vets are dishonorably discharged or discharged with something less than an honorable discharge, and that affects their ability to get compensation from the VA. Can you give us an example of this problem?

GLANTZ: Yeah, well, here's one good example. This person has not yet been discharged, but I was just talking to him last week. So it's fresh in my mind. This is an Army medic who was deployed to Afghanistan recently, and while he was in Afghanistan he tried to kill himself by overdosing on morphine. And of course he's a medic, so he has a large stash of morphine.

Rather than getting him treatment for the mental wounds which obviously contributed to him wanting to kill himself, the Army brought him to Fort Lewis in Washington and is now investigating him for criminal charges for misuse of the morphine. And so if he is convicted, he will get a less than honorable discharge, and I think when we were talking earlier, I mentioned that anyone getting out of the military now who's an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, they could get five years of free health care - well, provided you have an honorable discharge.

But frequently some of the people who most need that health care get dishonorable discharges because their multiple deployments to the war zones contribute to bad behavior while in the service, including suicide, including domestic violence, including excessive drinking and drug abuse and that the military has been doing a very bad job of basically triaging these people into treatment instead of triaging them into the criminal justice system.

GROSS: Aaron Glantz will be back in the second half of the show. He's a reporter with the Center for Investigative Reporting. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Aaron Glantz of the Center for Investigative Reporting. He's been doing a series of reports - with the help of the Freedom of Information Act - investigating why many vets face long waits for their disability and other benefits from the VA. When we left off, we were talking about how some vets end up with dishonorable discharges as a result of behavior related to combat-related stress and mental health problems, and once they had a dishonorable discharge they're no longer eligible for benefits.

Here's another example of a soldier waiting to hear what his discharge status will be. He fought in the Iraq War and is now in jail in Fort Carson, Colorado.

GLANTZ: He was with a special ops unit. He was in Iraq in 2007, when their entire convoy was blown up. He watched people die in front of him. He was knocked unconscious himself. His whole life has gone downhill since then. He tried to access mental health care. He did access mental health care and told the mental health practitioner that he was thinking of killing himself. The care was not doing the trick for him. He beat his wife, the police had to come, and now he's in the brig awaiting charges. If he is dishonorably discharged for beating his wife, when he gets out the VA will not be allowed to provide any health care for him unless the VA grants his disability claim for posttraumatic stress disorder. So you know, if you look forward for the sky, let's say that he does gets dishonorably discharged and he has no access to VA health care, then he would file a claim with the VA and wait, you know, nine months, a year, maybe two years for his benefits; you know, that's exactly when he might very well, you know, fall into homelessness, severe drug abuse, and end up committing suicide. And so I think that, you know, when you look at a case like this, I mean here's a guy, he's still in the military right now, we know as a society what we need to do to prevent the horror stories that we always see in the media, and we're it not doing it. And there's a lot of cases like this. There's a tremendous number of cases like this right now and also which have built up, you know, during the 10 years that we've been at war in Iraq. And, you know, what are we up to now, 12 years in Afghanistan.

GROSS: So I mean, you know, beating your wife is a terrible thing and truly dishonorable. But you're saying in some cases that behavior is the result of combat-induced stress and that that's not being taken into account?

GLANTZ: I would say so. You know, I'm not saying that people who beat their wife or crash their cars, you know, while they are under the influence of alcohol or, you know, do some of the other horrible things that people do when they're in a flashback or when they're trying to drink themselves out of a flashback, that those are acceptable behavior and that there has to be, you know, some kind of a discipline or punishment for that. You know, when we we're out in civilian society, you know, there's an emerging arena of drug courts for veterans or veteran treatment courts where veterans get sentenced to probation and treatment and, you know, eventually there's a good record of this working, you know, that they have some level of punishment but they mostly need help then they get it and then they go on and improve their lives and contribute to society. It's not in our interest as a society to take somebody who's, you know, served our country through three tours in a war, has been wounded in that war and then kicked them to the curb, you know, when they start having problems when they come back - even if those problems involve, you know, committing acts like beating your wife or stealing morphine from the company.

GROSS: You write the VA estimates that 22 vets commit suicide each day, and that's doubled the rate of suicides of people who never served in the military. In 2008 you wrote that more vets were committing suicide than were dying in combat overseas. Do you know what those numbers are like now?

GLANTZ: The difference between the number of people who are killing themselves at home versus dying overseas is just increasing as fewer and fewer Americans are dying overseas. I mean we're out of Iraq now. The president says we'll be out of Afghanistan by 2014. We now have 2.4 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Some of them are still in the military but they'll eventually get out. Maybe by the time we're done with these wars we will have the same number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that we had Vietnam veterans. There are three million Vietnam veterans. Three million people served in Vietnam. I don't think that the public has an appreciation that these wars have as many people, almost, involved in them as the Vietnam War.

GROSS: So now that "don't ask, don't tell," now that that policy is over, how will it affect benefits for people who are gay and serve or did serve in the military and for their partners and spouses?

GLANTZ: The VA is starting to react to this. The Defense of Marriage Act is a barrier.

GROSS: For spouses? Right, because...

GLANTZ: For spouses, yeah...

GROSS: ...the federal government can't recognize a state's gay marriage.

GLANTZ: The issue is for the veteran and his family or her family, right? If you served in Iraq or Afghanistan and you died, for example, then typically your spouse would be entitled to life insurance, up to 400,000 or a million dollars in compensation for losing your loved one in the war. But if you are, you know, a same-sex spouse, then because of the Defense of Marriage Act it will be difficult for you to collect that life insurance. Programs that are available to family members in terms of, you know, care benefits and so forth, are difficult to access, so that's an issue. The VA is very uneven in terms of providing health care to gay and lesbian service members when they come home. I live in San Francisco. The VA in San Francisco was a national leader in terms of providing health care to gay and lesbian veterans - as you might imagine. They've been doing it for years because, of course, even before "don't ask, don't tell" was lifted there were gay and lesbian veterans who would come out after they got out of the military and seek health care. This is an area, like some of the other areas we've been discussing, where the VA knows that there is an issue and they are moving exquisitely slowly to deal with it.

GROSS: Well, I think one really obvious advantage now that "don't ask, don't tell" is ended is that gay people can't be dishonorably discharged on the count that they are gay. So if you're gay and serving in the military, you won't be denied benefits because you're gay.

GLANTZ: Although it was typically true before "don't ask, don't tell" was repealed that when people on active duty would be discharged because of "don't ask, don't tell," they would be chaptered out under a provision that would allow them to keep their VA benefits. Because, you know, there is the honorable discharge, right, and then there's the dishonorable discharge. But there's all sorts of other ways that they can give you an other than honorable discharge which do not jeopardize your VA benefits. And except in rare cases, most of the service members discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" could still access the VA. You know, I was talking to one gentleman, for example, who is here in Northern California, who was discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" and he was going to Academy of Art College on the G.I. Bill, you know, even though he had been discharged under "don't ask, don't tell," and this was before it was repealed, because he did not have that dishonorable discharge.

GROSS: Before you wrote about vets, you wrote about the war in Iraq. You covered the first few years as an unembedded journalist in Iraq. I have such respect for journalists who risk their lives to cover wars. And I always wonder how does a reporter decide that it's time to leave the war zone and to do something else and time to give up war zone reporting? What made you think it's time to give it up and leave Iraq?

GLANTZ: One of the first stories I ever covered as a journalist was the execution by the state of California of Manny Babbitt, who was this Vietnam veteran who had literally been driven crazy by the war in Vietnam and had in 19 - god, I don't even remember the year, but he killed this elderly woman in her home, during a flashback. It involved, the crime involved an iron, and then he killed this other woman down the street. It was a foggy day and all indications are that he thought that he was in Vietnam and that he was at war; it was the '80s. He was executed in 2000. And when I was in Iraq, I sort of have a pretty good understanding of how that could happen. You know, inside myself, like I knew what my limits were before I would snap and I felt like I was coming up to those limits. And so I said I was done. And I'm just grateful that I had the opportunity to make that decision myself. You know, I think that that's one thing that keeps me going on the veterans coverage, is that I could decide for myself when I was done. But these people who serve in the military, you know, a lot of them have been there, literally they've spent four, five years of their life in these wars, something that nobody ever had to do during World War II or Vietnam, spend this much time. Nobody's ever been compelled to do that before in American history, and they don't get to choose in the same way.

GROSS: Since you speak to some and a vets about the issues that most directly affect their lives, do veterans often say to you: Since you're a journalist, here's what I want Americans to know about what it's like for me or for other vets of Iraq and Afghanistan? And if so, what are some of the things they tell you?

GLANTZ: You know, I think that in general veterans are - Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are mostly young people, you know. There are some older veterans - especially Guard and Reserve, but mostly younger people. Although now, you know, that the war has been going on so long, if you got out and you were 20, you're now 30, so maybe not that young. And they basically, they want to be able to succeed as civilians and they want the country to pay attention to them and to deliver on the promises that it made, and they want a chance for success in the civilian world for themselves and the other people they served with. And I think that they've still got one eye on the war, you know, because it's still going on. Not quite as much now that Iraqi is over, but you know, it would be very common for me to talk to veterans on a community college campus, and one of the things they most wanted to talk about was that their buddy was still over there and that they wished people cared about that. It's going to be interesting to see how that changes, you know, if we do leave Afghanistan next year, as the president has said.

GROSS: Well, Aaron Glantz, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

GLANTZ: It's my pleasure.

GROSS: Aaron Glantz is a reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting. You'll find links to his articles about veterans benefits and an excerpt of his 2009 book, "The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans," on our website

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