By Kristen Moulton
The Salt Lake Tribune
Walt Youse died before the Department of Veterans Affairs could decide whether to compensate him for his World War II disabilities: shrapnel in his shoulder and foot troubles stemming from the jungle rot he suffered in Japan.
His grandson, Justin Youse, fared a bit better.
After two years of deliberation and denials, Veterans Affairs agreed in December that during his service in Iraq 10 years ago this summer, Youse permanently sacrificed his ability to hold a job.
The fight for a 100 percent disability rating based on his broken back and severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) left Youse disgusted.
He is one of hundreds of thousands of veterans across the nation who wait months and even years for VA to decide whether their country owes them for injuries and maladies caused by their service.
The military drawdown associated with two wars ending -- Iraq in 2011 and Afghanistan in 2014 -- amid a sputtering economy is flooding the VA with claims from new veterans, even as the agency is aggressively advertising its benefits and making it easier to claim payments for PTSD, Gulf War illnesses and exposure to Agent Orange.
The number of disability claims has rocketed, from 391,127 the week President Barack Obama took office to a high of 822,520 in March. More than two-thirds of the claims are from vets seeking a higher disability rating and more compensation; the other third are first-time filers.
As of June 22 in the Boston VA office, 10,279 claims were pending, and on average, claims had been pending for 306 days.
Waiting takes a toll, said Youse, who lives in Bountiful, Utah, with his pregnant wife and stepson, and now receives $3,166 a month. His grandfather died in July 2011.
"It's about making your mortgage payment, not losing your truck. It almost cost me my family," he said. "It cost me my trust in the VA. It darned near cost me my sanity."
VA's ambitious goal now is to decide every disability claim within 125 days -- four months -- with 98 percent accuracy by the end of 2015. Claims older than 125 days are considered part of the backlog.
"We are committed to [that goal] and I am confident we are going to achieve it," VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in Salt Lake City on June 25. "Today's veterans ... wait too long to receive the benefits they've earned. That has never been acceptable."
While the agency has made some progress since March, virtually wiping out claims older than two years by mid-June, the task ahead remains daunting.
As of June 22, 756,888 compensation claims remained pending, with two-thirds of them older than four months -- a backlog of more than a half million claims.
Only 22 percent of the pending claims are from veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The rest are from prior wars and peacetime, with Vietnam War vets -- at 36 percent -- comprising the largest group.
Robert Vert, 64, is one of them.
An Army police officer in Vietnam, he turned to his congressman, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, this winter for help. Vert had repeatedly tried -- and failed -- to get more disability pay for PTSD and for an inexplicable malady that has left him weak for decades.
After he enlisted Matheson in February, the VA upped his disability rating to 70 percent in June.
"If it weren't for the congressman I don't think it would have happened," says Vert.
Critics are dubious. Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said in a June 20 speech: "VA has been overpromising and under delivering for decades under both Democrat and Republican administrations."
Miller, a Republican from Florida, wants Obama to create a task force to figure out how to best end the backlog.
The Byzantine system VA uses to decide each veteran's benefit, created by Congress over decades, is designed to treat vets benevolently, requiring minimal evidence of injury or illness. But the process is mired in an accretion of laws, rules and procedures.
"What it comes down to is, it's an enormous bureaucracy," said Jacob Worrell of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), which this spring secured the signatures of 67 senators and 164 representatives on a letter urging Obama to corral the best minds to resolve the backlog.
Worrell took the lead in creating IAVA's new website, thewaitwecarry.org, which highlights the wait individual veterans are enduring. It launched June 20.
"At the end of the day, it's a paperwork issue. It's solvable," said Worrell, a veteran himself. "It's not like we're trying to put a man on Mars."
'So much work'
The wait is particularly acute in some cities, and there's "no real rhyme or reason" for the differences, said Verna Jones, director of veteran affairs for the American Legion in Washington, D.C. The legion and other organizations have thousands of veteran service officers who help prepare claims free of charge.
Jones suspects that regional VA offices with the best training for their claims staff have better results. And while VA's budget has more than doubled to $140.3 billion in the past decade, she believes the agency doesn't have enough people to handle the task.
"Wherever we go (to regional offices), it's so much work and so little staff," she said.
Terry Schow, the former head of Utah's veteran affairs department, believes much of the criticism of VA for the backlog is unfair.
A big share is due to Shinseki's desire to do right by Vietnam vets, said Schow, who served in the Special Forces in Vietnam. Although the agency completed 1 million claims a year for the past four years, it was getting more than 1 million new ones.
And each veteran claims more injuries and illnesses in the past, making claims more complicated, he notes.
"Beating up on them is not the answer," said Schow. "We need to realize the sheer number we're dealing with."