It took only minutes for Bill Korber to be sprayed with Agent Orange that rained down on his patrol boat “like they were giving us a shower.”
The 64-year-old Vietnam veteran from Dayton has waited nearly four years to resolve his disability claim with the VA — and his case is one of 2.1 million still pending before the Veterans Benefits Administration. On average, it takes 262 days nationally and 278 days in Ohio to complete a veteran’s disability claim.
“They can draft you and put in uniform and teach you how to kill in six months flat,” Korber said, “but they can’t process a claim in under a year.
“I have buddies who have died waiting for their benefits.”
The delays are due to a growing backlog that VA spokesman Craig Larson attributed to “increased demand, the result of 10 years of war and many veterans returning with severe, complex injuries. The VA is caring for millions of veterans and beneficiaries of all eras.”
A U.S. Government Accountability Office review last month showed the VA’s backlog of claims taking more than 125 days to process has more than tripled nationwide since September 2009. The report found the average length of time it takes to reduce a claim has grown from 161 days in 2009 to 260 days last year.
Even so, the VA says it has processed a record one million claims in each of the past three years.
Endless paper chase
Several claimants told the Dayton Daily News they are paying a steep price for the wait.
Newly widowed, Bernardine Sanders of Lebanon nearly lost her home while waiting for her husband’s pension to be approved. Her 82-year-old mother, Nellie Sheppard, lost her husband Bernard, a Korean War veteran, in 2009, and she is still waiting on his disability benefits. “I feel the VA is stalling and keeps delaying this in hopes that I will give up, go away, or pass away,” Sheppard said.
Other veterans or their family members were similarly frustrated: “We’re throwaways, is what we are,” Korber said. “I think it takes them so long to process claims because they hope you’ll die.”
Decades after leaving Vietnam, Kenneth E. Kingston of Bellbrook suffers from diabetes, heart disease, and PTSD. He’s been compensated for only one of his service-related conditions, however — $123 a month for a degenerative joint condition.
Terry Ruby of Eaton has limped every day of his life since 1976, when a fuel tanker’s landing gear cracked and crushed his foot with nearly three tons of force, all but severing two of his toes. Then a 21-year-old newlywed, he asked his bride, Bev, “Are you sure you still want to be married to me?”
Bev remains his devoted helpmate, but she admits the past two years have been stressful as they have waited for word on an increase in her husband’s VA disability benefits. Ruby had his right knee replaced after decades of putting too much of his weight on his uninjured right side. The couple lives modestly on roughly $500 a month from the VA as well as Terry’s disability Social Security income.
“I lost my job in February, after 27 years,” Bev said. “We are down to one car, because we don’t have the money to repair our other car.”
The Rubys initially filed their claim in May 2011, but they said the VA lost their paperwork. It’s not an uncommon story: The GAO report found the Veterans Benefits Administration practice of handed off paperwork has led to “misplaced and lost documents.” Much of the claims staff is new, the report says, and with the influx of new veterans the VA has shifted staff away from handling appeals to processing new claims.
Karen James of Springfield said her 64-year-old sister, Kathy, has exhausted her $40,000 life savings while waiting to obtain benefits for her husband, a Vietnam veteran with Alzheimer’s disease who now requires nursing home care. Kathy recently borrowed money from friends in order to ensure that her husband gets the care that he needs. “I don’t understand the delay,” James said. “I think our veterans deserve more.”
Her sister suffered a stroke a year ago and is now unable to work. “Kathy was under so much stress, I believe it was a factor in her stroke,” James said.
“Vets are very frustrated by the length of time that it takes,” acknowledged Jerry Manar, deputy director of national services for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “A lot of them are hurting. Unfortunately, some of them die waiting.”
New computer system may speed process
The 262-day wait for VA disability benefits is considerably higher than the 111-day wait for Social Security benefits, but Manar said that the VA is uniquely generous in its allocation of benefits. “If the evidence is equally balanced, for and against, the law says you grant the benefit to the veteran,” Manar said.
Larson said that the recent expansion of benefits has added nearly a million claims to the system. In 2012, the VA recognized three new medical conditions related to Agent Orange exposure, simplified the claims process for PTSD claims and expanded benefits for Gulf War illnesses. “These decisions were clearly the right thing to do,” Larson said, but added that absorbing the crush of new claimants has been challenging.
In addition, he said, 45 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are seeking compensation for service-related injuries, an historic high. Those claims include an average of eight to 10 medical issues per claim, more than double the number from the Vietnam era, Larson said.
Hope is on the horizon, Manar said: The VA is updating its computer system, which could drastically cut down wait times. “The VA executives think it’s going to be an overnight acceleration, but I think it is going to be a bit slower than that,” he said.
The VA is also making other changes to speed things up. The Veterans Benefit Administration has rolled out a new paperless, digital claims processing system at the VA regional office in Cleveland and expanded staff training. The agency is also working on prioritizing claims so that “at-risk” veterans get the highest priority.
Among other changes, the agency is partnering with the Department of Defense to let service members know of their benefits and share health records. The VA has a goal of processing claims within 125 days by 2015 with 98 percent accuracy.
Getting there will be daunting. The GAO study found that the ranks of veterans are expected to grow by another one million over the next five years.
Some local veterans are skeptical the changes will put a stop to the long delays and seemingly endless paperwork.
Korber suffers from diabetes and hepatitis, conditions the VA acknowledges stem from his multiple exposures to Agent Orange, the herbicide the U.S. military sprayed on trees and vegetation during the Vietnam War. Like his father before him, Korber retired from the Dayton Fire Department. He says his service-related health problems keep him from working any job, though the VA has not granted him 100-percent disability status. If it did, his monthly payments would more than quadruple and his health care would be thoroughly covered by the VA. As it stands, his monthly disability check doesn’t cover the cost of his insurance premium.
“We aren’t starving, but it would be nice to be able to do something,” Korber said, his wife Joan by his side. “Every day, I look for that big brown envelope with the VA’s decision, and every day, it ain’t there.”
The Korbers, like other local veterans the newspaper interviewed, are frustrated by the strange arithmetic of disability benefits. The VA acknowledges that Korber’s hepatitis is caused by Agent Orange exposure, but that isn’t covered. He has earned 30 percent disability for PTSD, and 20 percent for diabetes, but somehow that only adds up to a 40 percent disability under the system’s rules. “I went to Belmont High School, but even I can do math better than that,” Korber joked.
He said he would serve again if he could, yet rarely wears his “Vietnam Veteran” ball cap. He still feels scarred by the reaction when he came back from his third and final tour in Vietnam. “That last time I came back right out of the field, wearing my greens, with the mud on my boots,” he said. “I went through the airport at San Francisco and they called me babykiller. It was terrible.”
He said he feels dishonored in a different way by the long ordeal of fighting for his benefits. “They’re the ones who wanted you to go, but now they don’t want to take care of you,” he said.
Spokeswoman Nicole Alberico said the VA can’t comment on individual cases, for privacy reasons, adding, “The VA has completed 1 million claims plus per year the last three fiscal years. We take veterans’ questions regarding their claims seriously, and we will work with them to answer any questions they may have.”
Widow sells husband’s wedding ring to keep house
When Bernard Sheppard died in 2009, at the age of 82, he believed that his widow, Nellie, would be well-provided for. Although he had recently lost his GM retiree benefits, he figured Nellie would be able to rely on his veteran benefits.
Instead, she has gotten nothing.
Sheppard and her daughter, Bernardine Sanders, found themselves in a unique position: mother and daughter, both widows, both fighting for their husband’s VA pensions and insurance benefits.
The VA paid $7,000 a month for Sheppard’s nursing home care during his final years, Sanders said, but encountered a complication after his death. “When we contacted the VA for Mom’s benefits, we were notified that Dad would have to have been at 100-percent disability for 10 years to make Mom eligible,” Sanders said. “But Dad was stubborn and chose to work and use GM benefits and pay his way.”
Sanders believes her mother is being penalized because her husband tried to save the VA some money. That’s a cruel irony, she said, given what her father suffered during the Korean War after being injured by enemy fire in 1951. His ankles, knees and thighs were shredded with shrapnel.
“He survived by pulling dead bodies on top of himself for warmth and protection and was found almost frozen to the ground,” Sanders said. “A 21-year-old boy who loved hiking and fishing spent the rest of his life in special shoes, later walking with a cane and braces, and finally a wheelchair.”
While trying to help her mother, Sanders faced her own ordeal. Her husband of four years, Jim Sanders, died Oct. 8, 2011, of heart failure at the age of 63. His diabetes and heart disease can be traced to his exposure to Agent Orange during Vietnam. “He worked with it, sprayed it, and loaded it, and they said it wouldn’t hurt him,” Bernardine said.
Sanders, a banker, was known for his jovial nature — so much so that the late Virginia Kettering hired him to play Santa Claus in the Kettering Tower every Christmas. But in his darker moments, she said he confided, “I served my country, and they killed me.”
His widow’s initial request for death benefits was met with a letter from the VA stating their records didn’t indicate that he was married at the time of his death. Sanders waited nine months for a decision. She borrowed money and sold off cherished belongings to avoid foreclosure on the couple’s VA-guaranteed home loan. “I couldn’t sleep at night and I could barely eat,” Sanders recalled. “At the end of every month, I told myself, ‘I got through this month, how am I going to get through next month?”
Sanders ultimately was awarded $1,215 a month in death benefits. Before it was over she sold her husband’s wedding ring to make the mortgage payment. “This was his dream house,” she said, “and I was determined not to lose it.”
Haunted by ghosts
Kevin McDonald of Tipp City advises his fellow veterans to reach out for help when filing benefits claims. “There’s a lot of help for vets, and they can easily stumble if they don’t seek it out,” he said. The Navy veteran spent three weeks doing his homework before filing for an increase in disability benefits in February 2011. His case was closed successfully eight months later.
“Your paperwork is key,” he observed.
Some cases are more complicated than others. Since leaving the Army as an infantry soldier in Vietnam, Kenneth E. Kingston has endured a medical nightmare that includes post-traumatic stress disorder, diabetes and heart ailments. He had a heart attack and underwent quadruple heart-bypass surgery last year, which led him to retire from his job as a Dayton school teacher teaching emotionally disturbed students.
He has battled depression and troubles in his marriages.
But Kingston has had trouble convincing the VA that he has a legitimate claim. Although the 61-year-old veteran is being treated for PTSD at the Dayton VA Medical Center, the Veterans Benefits Administration denied financial compensation in March 2011 for the illness and his depression, claiming a lack of evidence that it was connected to his service.
He has appealed the VA’s decision, pointing out that an independent medical evaluation declared he suffers from severe PTSD. The VA also denied Kingston’s claims for a heart condition, which Kingston suspects was caused from exposure to Agent Orange. He said the VA has told him it won’t rule on that claim and another for diabetes until March 2014.
“It seems like the VA wants to deny everything,” Kingston said.
He admits to a frustration echoed by other veterans: lack of information about the status of their claims. “They can’t even tell me where, how long, or anything else,” he said. “For me, that’s the most frustrating is just not getting an answer.”
The VA has granted him $123 a month and a 10 percent disability claim for a degenerative joint condition in one knee, but rejected the claim for the other. He said both have bothered him for years, but that the Army and the VA told him in the 1970s and the 1980s that there was nothing wrong. “They told me not to worry about it,” he said. “It would go away.”
Few of Kingston’s troubles have gone away. He talks about the four marriages he’s had and the dozens of jobs before his career as a teacher. His wife, Kathy, separated from her husband twice during their 25 years, but they have stayed married. She accompanies him to PTSD classes at the Dayton VA, which she said has made a difference now in his life through counseling and medication.
The unexplained rages and impulsive behaviors, such as casino gambling, are being held in check.
Something else has happened too: he is no longer hiding his military past. He has started wearing a black jacket that identifies him as a Vietnam veteran.
“I told him you need to be proud of that service to your country and not be ashamed of it or not be afraid to let people know,” Kathy said. “That’s part of who you are.”
How to get help:
The Montgomery County Veterans Service Commission: The agency handles more than 6,000 claims a year. Call 937-225-4801.
Mark Landers, president: “We are very proactive. We do real-time followup with these cases. The most important thing is having all documentation before submitting the claim and looking at the realities and regulations governing the VA.”
The VFW national hotline: 800-839-1899. Service officers helped 98,000 veterans recoup more than $2 billion in benefits last year, an increase from the 96,000 vets served and 1.4 billion in earned benefits recouped in 2011.
Jerry Manar, deputy director of national services: “The war doesn’t end when the last bullet is fired or even when the last service member comes home. It continues for the rest of their lives.”