Hoosier veterans face long wait for benefits
They fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now thousands of Indiana soldiers are home fighting a different battle - this one for benefits they've earned from the Veterans Administration.
13 Investigates breaks down the backlog here in Indiana, and why the leader of a local veterans group calls it a nightmare.
Walking around the Indiana War Memorial Park, Iraq veteran Dean Graham opens up about the effects of the war he feels everyday.
"Post traumatic stress. I'm not afraid to admit it, I have panic attacks," he said candidly as he described not being able to shake the mortar attack that landed just feet from him.
"There was 13 people injured and one person killed that day. And 20 feet more to the right, I wouldn't be standing here talking to you about it," he said point blank.
Diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Graham began the process to get benefits in 2010, and showed
13 Investigates his Army orders placing him on the permanently disability retirement list. Graham was granted medical retirement in 2011, but got nothing from the VA.
His claim sat for nearly two years before he finally began receiving benefits a couple of months ago.
"It's immense," Graham said without hesitation.
He made it through the wait. The government says a growing number of soldiers are giving up and in the worst way. Graham has heard devastating stories through Help Indiana Vets, the organization he and his wife started.
"He committed suicide while waiting for his compensation claim to be settled. And there are many veterans out there right now that are in that situation where financially they're strapped," Graham told 13 Investigates.
Veterans who lost so much in the line of duty are now home and lost in an embarrassing backlog of red tape.
Nationally there are nearly a million cases sitting with an average wait of two years.
13 Investigates has learned the Indianapolis VA Regional Office has a backlog of nearly 20,000 claims.
19,916 to be exact. Of those, nearly 16,000 of them have been pending for more than 125 days, the equivalent of four months.
"Where are the places that things are just getting caught up?" asked 13 Investigates.
"I believe that they've created a paperwork nightmare," said Graham. Pointing to the federal building where the POW flag waves outside, Graham reveals what he saw during a visit to the facility. "The entire fifth floor of this building is full of files, they're on a conveyor belt," he explained.
13 Investigates requested a look inside the file rooms at the VA's Indianapolis Regional offices downtown but the request was denied.
The Secretary of Veterans Affairs promised this week to get it all fixed by 2015 with new computerized data systems.
"I wish I had all these tools four years ago. We would have killed that backlog by now," said Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Graham says hundreds of cases are being filed every day. He's concerned that the promise to catch up in two years will fall short once again.
The Indiana regional office says it has processed 4 million claims over the last four years, but still has a long way to go.
Indiana lawmakers are now considering House Bill 1387. It would pay for the training and certification of county service providers who help expedite veteran's claims. The measure would put claims into the system faster but doesn't guarantee faster payouts.