Monday, October 1, 2001
By JENNIFER SERGENT, email@example.com
The Department of Veterans Affairs' mission is to serve veterans and their
families "with dignity and compassion and to be their principal advocate."
But many veterans who seek compensation for injuries received in military
service say they're served instead with long waits, indifference and
One Vietnam veteran sought benefits for nearly 30 years for post-traumatic
stress disorder. Before his long fight resulted in compensation, the VA
declared his condition to be childhood related and denied the claim.
A World War II veteran tried for decades to get compensation for severe
arthritis that led to a hip replacement, after the Germans shot him in the
hip in 1944 and he was held prisoner for months without treatment. The VA
said the arthritis wasn't "service connected." His wife finally got the
benefits this year, five years after he died.
An Air Force veteran who says he injured his back in training in 1955
sought benefits in 1992, after another injury worsened the original
damage. In denying his claim, the VA not only said the injury wasn't
service connected, but it also accused him of trying to defraud the agency
through his claim.
A retired Air Force colonel was told he would probably get his benefits
for a condition related to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. That was in
May. Since then, he can't get anyone to return his calls.
Such stories are not uncommon, according to veterans' service
organizations. The result is that veterans have lost faith in the system
that was designed to help them.
"I just feel like it's abuse, really," said the Air Force veteran who
injured his back, Robert Lyttle, 65, of Palm Bay.
"He was very disappointed that the government did not help the veterans,"
said Ann Bosmay, 77, of her late husband John's long fight to get benefits
for his arthritis. "Every time I'd get a letter from the VA, my heart
dropped. I was just so sick in the stomach," said Bosmay, who lives
Veterans who file claims for disability compensation must wait an average
of seven months before the VA issues a decision.
If the veteran disagrees with that decision, he or she must appeal it,
first through the VA itself and then through the U.S. Court of Appeals for
Veterans Claims and, in some cases, up to the Court of Appeals for the
Cases on appeal can take a decade or longer to resolve, attorneys say. And
in the end, more than half of them result in a decision that the VA was
What's more, the number of new appeals cases filed with the Court of
Appeals for Veterans Claims increased more than 90 percent since 1995,
from 1,279 to 2,442.
"People get caught in this loop because the mistakes aren't necessarily
corrected the first time," said Pittsburgh attorney Susan Paczak.
University of Cincinnati law professor James O'Reilly, who has studied the
VA bureaucracy, described the effects of a lengthy appeals process on an
"The veteran is on a hamster wheel. You cannot get off the wheel and get
your benefits granted before you die."
Of the 1 million claims decisions rendered each year by the VA, about 10
percent are appealed, said James Whitson, the VA's associate deputy under
secretary for operations. Between first-time cases and appeals, the agency
is mired in a backlog of more than 675,000 cases.
VA Secretary Anthony Principi named as one of his top priorities reducing
the backlog and generally improving the quality of service to veterans,
"He knows many veterans are frustrated with this," Whitson said.
The agency is assembling a "tiger team" to expedite the claims of veterans
over 70. And it has hired 1,000 new claims processors in the last year,
bringing the total to about 12,000 around the country.
In addition, a task force is expected to release a report next week with
nearly three dozen short-term and long-term recommendations for improving
The agency is already trying to beef up its quality control, so claims
processors don't make initial mistakes in reviewing files.
Staff attorneys with the Board of Veterans Appeals, the VA's in-house
appeals panel, are also fanning out to the agency's 57 field offices to
address potential problems in claims decisions that could later lead to an
"We haven't been waiting for just the task force to come forward," Whitson
said. "We're going to be able to beat this."
Outsiders who have dealt with the VA for years are hopeful for change, but
they remain skeptical that the agency's problems can be fixed.
Douglas McArthur, director of the National Veterans Organization of
America, has faith in Principi.
"If anybody can make a dent in it, he can," said McArthur, whose El Paso-
based organization represents more than 5,000 veterans who are unhappy
with how the VA treats them.
"I'm convinced in (Principi's) sincerity. The problem that crops up is
it's a monster bureaucracy," McArthur said.
Kenneth Carpenter, a Topeka attorney who has dealt with the VA for nearly
20 years, agreed.
"I simply cannot believe (Principi) is going to change the stripes on this
tiger. This is an entrenched bureaucracy," he said. "There are tens of
thousands, and I believe hundreds of thousands, of veterans who are not
getting the benefits they're entitled to."
O'Reilly, the University of Cincinnati law professor, spent a year
reviewing veterans' appeals cases. He found that instead of making a final
decision on a claim, the VA's review board and the independent Court of
Appeals for Veterans Claims are sending the cases back in a "remand" to
the VA for processors to do them over.
"The core problem is in an undisciplined pattern of recycling of claims
without effective judicial oversight of a failing bureaucracy," O'Reilly
wrote recently in a law review article. "The decisional process in
veterans benefits is desperate for a firm hand; it only has a carousel of
remand, mishandling, rehearing, remand and so on."
O'Reilly and others point to one egregious form of mishandling in the case
of Garrett Hayre, the Vietnam veteran who suffers from post-traumatic
Hayre filed a claim for benefits based on his condition in 1972, after two
years of combat in Vietnam. The VA initially declared that records showed
no mental illness was ever treated during his service, and therefore he
wasn't eligible for compensation.
Evidence that emerged in appeals that stretched through 1999 showed the VA
lied. The records existed, but the VA never obtained them.
"I'm mad," said Hayre, 51, of Monticello, Ky. To this day, he said, "I
have flashbacks, I've had nightmares. Every time I hear a chopper in the
sky, I have to go look for it."
Several veterans said they see a mission in their efforts to secure
"It's been a long, hard 10 years," said Lyttle, the Florida veteran with
the back injury. Three separate appeals through the system have resulted
in opinions that the VA needed to re-review his case. Still, the agency
contends his injury is not service-connected.
"I've been persistent, and I've maintained a good attitude," Lyttle said.
"I'm really doing this for everyone, not just me. I want to prove a point.
I want to win."
George Williams, the retired Air Force colonel, said he would not stop at
trying to secure benefits for a grave medical condition, which is a known
result of Agent Orange exposure. He didn't want to discuss his condition
Williams said no one in the VA will call him back, even though he was told
in May he would probably get the benefits he sought.
"I will go everywhere I can" to get an answer, he said. At the same time,
he added, "I don't think that this will ever see the light of day.
"It's in their best interest to stretch this out as long as they can. If I
die, this thing goes away."
Whitson said he was disappointed to hear that veterans think the VA wants
them to die.
"I would never do that to a fellow veteran," he said. "We would not do
that. We have just gotten behind, and the process needs to be improved.
Our mission is to serve veterans. We're hurt that people would think that,
but we can understand their frustration."
"When the way comes to an end, then change - having changed, you pass through."
Bruce "Doc". Melson