CHICAGO (CBS) – As more American troops leave Iraq and Afghanistan, more are coming home with disabilities, but any say the wait for their disability benefits and medical care is longer and more complicated than they ever expected.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says it’s working hard on the problem.
CBS 2’s Bill Kurtis has the first of two parts on what some veterans have to say about the issue.
They came back from battle scarred — physically and emotionally.
“I was in Iraq for a total of 26 months,” said Iraq veteran Crystal Colon. “It does a lot to your psyche.”
“We were actually in a convoy and we got ambushed,” said Iraq veteran George Fuentes. “We were the last battalion there, doing all the final sweeps around Saigon.”
But those veterans and others who have talked to CBS 2 about being wounded in action said they feel like they’re still fighting, after coming back from war.
Now, it’s to get their disability benefits, and to see a doctor for their ailments.
Iraq veteran Derek Giffin said, “It really is frustrating.”
The V.A. said it’s working hard to cut delays in providing benefits, and that the average time to process a benefits claim is 250 days – about 100 more in Chicago.
But Giffin, who served in Iraq and now counsels other veterans, said he sees a different number.
“We usually tell veterans that they should expect to wait about 500 days before they receive a rating decision,” he said.
It’s not just frustration. Several veterans said they feel forgotten.
Take Fuentes, who was left with back and shoulder injuries after his unit was ambushed. He also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Since April 2011, he’s been getting letters from the V.A., saying it’s working on his claim.
“I call them once a month, and the only thing they said, ‘Oh, your case is still being evaluated,’” Fuentes said.
Just last week, he even went to the V.A. processing center, where he said a clerk told him, “they’re working on it. They’re working on all the claims from 2010 now. … They’re working on it, that’s all she said. She said it three times.”
Colon, who served twice in Iraq, is still waiting for benefits, too.
While volunteering at a food pantry for homeless veterans, she told her story.
“I filed in Texas,” she said. “It took the V.A. months to move my claim from Texas to the state of Illinois.”
It took eight months and one week, to be exact.
Several vets, including Steven Thomas, said if they have an ongoing problem, just getting a doctor’s appointment can take several months.
Thomas has debilitating arthritis.
“I went to rheumatology in February, and I didn’t get an appointment for a follow-up until September the 18th,” he said.
Thomas said, last week, he learned he got into a pain management program, 10 months after making the request.
“This is how the V.A. operates,” he said.
But the V.A. begged to differ, pointing to new high-tech programs that are taking them light years ahead of where they’ve been.
Kurtis will have more on how the V.A. is addressing delays in providing benefits on Thursday.
Most of the veterans who spoke to CBS 2 about the delay in getting benefits also said they don’t look at the V.A. as the bad guy. In fact, Giffin said the V.A. is full of “great people,” there have just been problems with the system.