Soldiers coming home from one fight shouldn't face another

Paul Rieckhoff
Paul Rieckhoff is the executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Submitted photo

Former Army Specialist Casey Elder is trapped in a story without a conclusion. It began in 2004, the moment an IED struck her Humvee in Baghdad, slamming her hard enough to dislocate her shoulder and cause permanent joint and nerve damage.

After returning home, Casey began suffering from balance problems, short-term memory loss and severe migraines. After a series of misdiagnoses, her local VA hospital was finally able to pinpoint the source of her injuries: Casey had a traumatic brain injury.

She filed a disability claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs in January 2009, assuming that a diagnosis from a VA hospital would qualify her to receive compensation. But that assumption proved to be painfully wrong.

After waiting eight months, Casey was shocked to learn that her claim had been rejected. Her only recourse was to appeal the VA's decision, an arduous, drawn-out process. Today, more than a year after she started this journey, Casey still waits for word on whether or not she will receive her hard-earned benefits.

Unfortunately, stories like Casey's could fill a stack of books. She is just one of the nearly 425,000 members of the nation's least enviable club -- injured veterans waiting for their disability benefits. They are stuck waiting. And waiting.

Why the backlog? Like all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans applying for disability benefits, Casey is essentially using the same paper-based system that Vietnam veterans used more than three decades ago. The current disability process was created before most Iraq and Afghanistan vets were even born.

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In the last 30 years, we've moved from DOS to Windows 7, from rotary phones to iPhones, from Beta-Max to Blu-Ray -- but the VA is still operating with paper clips and printer paper.

As detailed in our newest report, "Red Tape: Veterans Fight New Battles for Care and Benefits," the claims process is a picture of government inefficiency and bureaucracy at its worst.

Veterans wait an average of six months to hear back from the VA on the status of their claim, with some forced to wait more than a year. The entire claims backlog borders on nearly 1 million, and because of an emphasis on processing quantity over quality, 17 percent of all claims are inaccurate.

Veterans who contest a wrong decision face an appeals process that takes, on average, more than two years. And just recently, we heard from VA Secretary Eric Shinseki that the wait time is likely to rise until 2013. The situation is out of control.

But somebody is doing something about it. This week, dozens of veterans like Casey and Sara Skinner will take this fight to the U.S. capital as part of IAVA's annual Storm the Hill campaign. They will tell Congress and the White House that the VA must reform its disability system -- that they refuse to allow the next generation of warriors to be left behind.

They are there to propose a few key fixes:

Digitizing records and moving the claims process into the 21st century.

Holding processors accountable for the accuracy of their work.

Removing unnecessary steps in the process.

A new, innovative, cost-effective system will make the federal government more efficient, and save taxpayers money at a critical time. We need the VA to try a business approach that works for countless companies: It's called customer service.

If Zappos, USAA and Craigslist can do it, so can the VA. But these vets aren't ordering shoes or finding concert tickets, they are trying to get their rightly earned benefits.

To get this done, we need bold leadership. Overhauling a system that dates back to the Nixon administration won't happen without a fight, and it won't happen without a united coalition.

Veterans of all generations and key leaders from both sides of the aisle will be taking it on, but we need all Americans to help. It doesn't matter whom you voted for, how you feel about the war or what party you are from; you can support our veterans fighting for disability reform.

Wounded soldiers returning from battle shouldn't have to fight red tape once they get home. Working together, we can finally close the chapter on the outdated VA disability claims process that has plagued veterans for generations. We can show soldiers like Casey Elder that we've got their back. Our veterans have waited for long enough.

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Paul Rieckhoff is the executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.