Manassas Journal Messenger | Returning veterans file for disability

WASHINGTON – One in four veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have filed for VA disability benefits – what one veteran advocate called “a bombshell.”

The new claims come as the Department of Veterans Affairs battles a backlog of disability claims, mostly from older vets, that has some veterans enduring years of waiting for a final ruling.

“There’s a wave of folks with issues coming home and we’re not prepared to deal with it and the VA’s not prepared to deal with it,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “And, putting your head in the sand is not going to make it better.”

More than 152,000 men and women – 27 percent of personnel who have left the military or been demobilized from the reserves or National Guard after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan – have filed for disability benefits, according to VA documents. In all, more than 1.3 million troops have deployed, but most remain on active duty.

Veterans’ advocates said the percentage of Iraq and Afghanistan vets filing for monthly VA disability checks was higher than most projections.

“It blows my mind, but it really doesn’t surprise me,” said Rieckhoff. “This is kind of a bombshell – you really can’t underestimate the importance of this.”

AMVETS national finance officer Velma Hart said the statistics are “disappointing, at the least.”

This week, more than 400 veterans are meeting in Chicago for a symposium about the needs of young veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, said Hart, who organized the event. Disability benefits, medical care, employment and homelessness are the conference’s top priorities, she added.

The VA documents were released by the National Security Archive, an independent organization that collects government documents obtained via the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Officials at the VA confirmed the statistics, which were dated July 20. Statistics that are more recent were still being verified.

VA benefits chief, Undersecretary Dan Cooper, said one reason for the high number of claims was an aggressive outreach program to encourage Iraq and Afghanistan vets to file for benefits.

“We’re pushing very hard to reach out in many different ways to get veterans to understand what benefits they have,” said Cooper, a retired Navy admiral.

He estimated the VA had contacted a million soldiers returning from overseas.

VA officials offered several caveats for the claims statistics, saying they only covered personnel who were discharged and that an unknown number of filed claims could have been for wounds, injuries and conditions that occurred before duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Of the 118,264 claims processed by VA officials, nearly 90 percent were granted in full or partially, the documents stated. More than 34,000 claims were pending an initial ruling by VA offices.

In all, about 2.6 million veterans, who served from World War II to the present day, receive VA disability benefits.

Each veteran granted a disability claim is rated from zero to 100 percent disabled. Depending on the degree of disability, a veteran receives monthly compensation and free medical care for the condition. A zero rating means a veteran will not receive any compensation but qualifies for medical treatment. But, if the condition worsens, a vet can file for a disability rating increase.

Even though thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are filing claims, the largest group of first-time filers is Vietnam and Cold War-era vets, Cooper said. And, he added, more than half of total claims processed last year were from veterans seeking an increase in their disability rating.

Cooper said the VA has bolstered its claims processing staff during the past two years and efficiency has increased as those new staffers become more experienced.

Several veterans’ advocates expressed concerns about the VA’s ability to handle the increasing number of veterans seeking medical, employment, educational, housing and other assistance.

The VA documents showed, from December 2005 through June 2006, that 37,188 new disability claims – about 5,300 per month – were filed by Iraq and Afghanistan vets. But, the VA was only able to process about 33,000 claims during the period – increasing the backlog by more than 3,800 pending claims.

James W. Crawley is a national correspondent for Media General News Service.

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