Vets Ordered to Risk Lives Overseas, Can't Get Health Care Back Home

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans #stormthehill to demand benefits due them, focus on suicide prevention.

(Photo: Larry Downing/Reuters)

Mar 21, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Environment and wildlife intern Adam Andrus has written for Mongabay.com and recently graduated from San Diego State.

There have been many names for it: Civil War doctors called it “nostalgia,” World War I doctors used the term “shell shock,” and during World War II they spoke of “battle fatigue.” It wasn’t until 1980 that the term post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, was added to the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which the American Psychiatric Association calls "the standard classification of mental health disorders used by mental health professionals."

Today the disorder is all too well known: The Department of Veteran Affairs lists PTSD as one of the three most common post-combat diagnoses, with 20 percent of the 2.5 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan having PTSD.

Undiagnosed or untreated, PTSD can lead to depression, substance abuse, or suicide. It’s therefore become a symbol not only of the horrors of war but of the urgent need for medical treatment for returning vets.

More than half of recent vets get health care from the VA—for both mental and physical injuries. But at least 24 percent of these are not getting the medical attention they are eligible to receive because of a backlog of pending medical benefit claims. As of last week, 638,295 original and supplemental claims for veterans from the Vietnam era to today are pending, of which 56 percent have exceeded the VA’s 125-day deadline to receive medical benefits.

This is called the “VA backlog,” and it’s a classic catch-22 (a phrase coined by a vet to describe military snafus): The VA is telling folks whom we supposedly value as heroes, essentially, “It’s too late for you to receive medical benefits because your application to receive medical benefits has been sitting in our office collecting dust for four months. Thank you for your service.”

The VA, in its attempt at being more transparent, admits that the backlog has grown considerably since 2009, and although the VA achieved record-breaking numbers in 2010 to 2012, processing 1 million claims per year, “the number of claims received continues to exceed the number processed.”

The average wait for a vet filing a supplemental disability claim is now 273 days. Original claims can take as long as 372 days. A veteran’s family may even wait more than two years just to find out whether they are eligible for benefits, forcing them to look for other (often more costly) insurers or to not receive medical help at all.

Fed up, vets around the nation are banding together in an effort to end the backlog.

Starting Monday, vets organized by the independent group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America will converge on Washington, D.C., in the seventh annual Storm the Hill event to talk to lawmakers and policymakers about issues facing vets, including the VA backlog.

“It’s difficult,” said Tegan Griffith, a Marine Corps veteran and spokeswoman for IAVA. “My brother has been stuck in the backlog for quite a long time. It affects our family’s life, and it affects his life. It took him a year before he even got an appointment, and when he did it took him seven months for him to get a [benefit] rating [based on the severity of his injuries] from the VA, and in that time he had to go to the E.R. twice because he couldn’t go to the VA.”

Vets and advocates will ask congressional leaders and President Barack Obama to take a closer look at issues that affect veterans the most, including PTSD and suicide, both of which affect them at rates far greater than those of the general population.

“It is our responsibility to ensure that we provide [veterans] with the benefits and services they need and deserve,” Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina said during an interview with IAVA member Angela King.

During the event, veterans will hold panel discussions and fund-raisers for the sake of getting the care they've earned.

“We’re here to put a personal face to the story of the 2.5 million veterans that can’t be here,” said Griffith. “So if my fight sets an example for somebody out there that needs help and they realize that ‘Hey, I can go get help and I can fight the VA,’ then it’s worth it.”

If you served in Afghanistan or Iraq and want to join IAVA, click here. If you want to follow the storm more closely, click here.