Skip to main content

U.S. shamefully slow to help vets

By Paul Rieckhoff, Special to CNN
updated 7:38 AM EDT, Tue March 19, 2013
Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan facing PTSD and other injuries can face wait times in processing their disability benefits of 600 days, says Paul Rieckhoff.
Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan facing PTSD and other injuries can face wait times in processing their disability benefits of 600 days, says Paul Rieckhoff.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Rieckhoff: Afghanistan, Iraq veterans can wait 600 days or longer for claim response
  • He says after 10 years of war, 97% of claims are still on paper, a logjam that hurts vets
  • He says VA says it has hired processors, but high turnover keeps number low
  • Rieckhoff: Veteran leaders in D.C. to "Storm the Hill," get officials to deal with backlog

Editor's note: Paul Rieckhoff is an Iraq veteran, the founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and the author of "Chasing Ghosts." Follow him on Twitter @PaulRieckhoff.

(CNN) -- Imagine you served for one year with the U.S. Army in Iraq. Imagine you served an additional tour in Afghanistan a year later.

And imagine being injured in that last tour after a roadside bomb exploded from beneath a trashcan as your Humvee rolled by. Your buddy sitting next to you was killed. After you left the Army and returned home, you had trouble focusing. You had headaches and issues with your vision. You realize you returned with what might be a Traumatic Brain Injury. And maybe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, too.

Imagine you also have two kids younger than 7 who haven't seen you very much for the last half decade. Imagine you're struggling to find a job. You've got a lot on your plate. And you're understandably stressed.

Paul Rieckhoff
Paul Rieckhoff
Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



You don't want to let down your family. And you don't want to be viewed as weak or a wimp by your buddies.

Opinion: Why women are less free after Iraq War

You summon the courage to overcome the stigma, and you go to your local Department of Veterans Affairs to get some help. You file a claim for disability benefits to get the care and compensation you've earned and the support you need to keep your family afloat financially. You're hopeful.

Now imagine waiting 600 days before you get an answer from the Department of Veterans Affairs. 600 days.

600 days of staring at your mailbox. 600 days of phone calls to check in. 600 days of bills piling up. 600 days of disappointment.

Sounds crazy, right? Well, for thousands of veterans nationwide, it's real life.

If you are a young vet who's filed a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs in New York or Los Angeles, you will wait an average of 600 days. And you're not alone.

More than 900,000 veterans of all generations are stuck in a bureaucratic logjam that, in 2013, is the almost too absurd to believe. After 10 years of war, three VA secretaries, and an increase in the overall department budget of 40% since 2009, an incredible 97% of veteran's claims are still on paper.

Yep, paper.

When should vets receive benefits?
Pentagon offers high honor for drone ops

America has soldiers in Nevada piloting drones remotely that can strike a target thousands of miles and two continents away, but 97% of our veterans' benefits claims are still on paper.

Earlier this month, the Center for Investigative Reporting released a leaked internal VA document that showed the entire world what veterans nationwide have known for years: the VA backlog problem is even worse than reported.

The VA has reported that the average claim wait time was 273 days. For the first claim filed, it's longer: 316 to 327 days. In Los Angeles, that figure is 619. In New York, it's 642. In Indianapolis, it's 612 days. And vets with first-time claims in Reno, Nevada, wait 681 days.

The VA has testified that it has hired 3,300 new claims processors, but it has failed to report that, because of staff turnover, the net increase in processors is only 300 since 2010. And, in Chicago; Waco, Texas; and Oakland, California, the overall number of claims processors has gone down.

Since the internal documents were leaked last week, we've yet to see a public response from VA Secretary Eric Shinseki or from the commander in chief.

Some 2.6 million men and woman answered the call to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. But now, a decade later, President Barack Obama is not answering their calls for help. And the public still doesn't seem to get it.

That's why this week I'm joining veterans from across America as we take our stories to Washington.

Hans Blix: Why invading Iraq was a terrible mistake

Veteran leaders from some 22 states are converging on the Capitol to "Storm the Hill," where we'll be pressing elected officials to confront and solve the backlog. You can see their faces and read about their stories at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America website, www.IAVA.org. They are an amazing group of men and women (and one dog) that have overcome tremendous obstacles. And now, they're taking on another one: the VA backlog.

Just like we've been trained, we won't quit until the job is done. No matter how long it takes, we'll keep fighting.

Our brothers and sisters deserve support for their sacrifices. And every single American should stand with us to #EndTheVAbacklog once and for all.

Ten years after the start of the Iraq War, there are a lot of folks who say they support the troops. Now is the time for them to show it.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Rieckhoff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:25 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT