By Jeffrey M. Freedman
In his second inaugural address, President Abraham Lincoln said the nation’s duty is “to care for him who shall have borne the battle.” If Lincoln knew of the Veterans Affairs backlog of veterans waiting to receive disability benefits today – estimated at 900,000 service members – he would not be proud.
Our military can have a new recruit ready to go off to war within an average of 10 weeks of basic training. But when a soldier returns from battle with a physical or mental disability, it takes three to five years to receive a decision on disability benefits.
With nearly one out of every two veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan applying for permanent disability benefits, Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., says the cause of the backlog is “sheer volume of veterans in need.”
Incorrectly filed applications clog the system, impacting all applicants, including those whose cases have been presented correctly. For the individual, the financial consequences are devastating and the accompanying stress contributes to further health problems.
Some vets even hesitate to file, feeling it is a waste of time. Veterans who have incurred physical and mental disabilities during their service time should never hesitate to file for the benefits they deserve – and the earlier, the better.
There are legitimate reasons for the surge in disability applications. Improvements in medicine increased the number of seriously injured soldiers returning from battle.
Mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, are now recognized as disabilities. Additionally, the VA expanded coverage to soldiers exposed to Agent Orange and other chemicals.
Members of the House Veterans Caucus have introduced a resolution urging the president, the secretary of Veterans Affairs and Congress to address the backlog.
Veterans who come to our offices for help with their claims, however, seem resigned to the situation. It’s “hurry up and wait,” they say, which in their experience is typical of the military.
In more than 30 years of helping more than 15,000 clients obtain disability benefits, I have never experienced such delays every step of the way: application wait time – typically one year; Board of Veterans Appeals – three years; U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals – another three years.
Lincoln would certainly agree: “Hurry up and wait” is not good enough for our veterans. Join me in writing to our elected officials, asking them to focus their attention on this issue and put our veterans first.
Jeffrey M. Freedman, managing attorney in Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys at Law, PLLC, is an accredited attorney with the Department of Veterans Affairs and belongs to the National Organization of Veterans Advocates.