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Hundreds of thousands of veterans are returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan only to face another battle here at home. Some are waiting years to get their disability benefits. The Department of Veterans Affairs has promised to fix the problem, but has only made a small dent in the backlog.
"I have tingling in my fingers ... I injured by foot in combat training when I was a young marine," Lee Hutchins said describing just some of his injuries from his time in the U.S. Marine Corp.
He served two tours in combat, one in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. He returned home in 2008.
"I filed for PTSD, now almost five years ago," he said.
It was shortly after his discharge from the Marines.
He submitted the lengthy claim for all of his various medical issues to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Since then, the agency has lost his records multiple times, mixed up his current claim with an old one filed from his first tour in Iraq, and said he was a no show for a medical evaluation even though it was canceled.
"You hear people use the [term] 'never leave anybody behind' type thing and you just get frustrated that it feels like they’re not necessarily leaving anybody behind, they are just forgetting about them," he said.
Nearly five years later, the Virginia veteran is still waiting for the VA to make a decision on his benefits.
"I don't know what else I can do," Hutchins told FOX 5.
The VA's numbers show the decorated former Marine is one of many. As of July 6, 2013, 501,895 claims have been pending more than 125 days. The average wait is nine months, but too many, like Hutchins, wait years. He is still able to work, but knows others can't.
"Part of the frustration is knowing my fellow Marines and other service members of course that aren't necessarily as lucky and have more serious injuries, missing limbs or suffering from really serious PTSD,” said Hutchins.
A spokesperson for the Department of Veterans Affairs said, "This administration has shown an unwavering commitment to serve Veterans."
The VA has completed more than a million claims a year in each of the past three years as claims have surged. Each claim typically contains an average of 8 to 10 medical conditions.
The VA acknowledges too many veterans are waiting too long. The backlog accounts for 67 percent of disability compensation claims.
"I think it's very, very appalling," said Nick McCormick, Legislative Associate for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
The group has more than 200,000 members and is the largest non-profit, non-partisan organization representing veterans of the two most recent wars. McCormick believes veterans have become a victim of government bureaucracy.
"Now what we're seeing is we need a 21st century VA to handle 21st century veterans. I think that's where all these hiccups and delays are coming from because for the longest time, veterans were still filing claims on paper," he said.
One of worst offices in the VA system serves veterans right here in our area. Maryland is notorious for delays and errors, making it among the highest nationwide.
"The office in Baltimore has been receiving plenty of criticism on a variety of issues, but with specific respect to the backlog, the turnaround times there are deplorable," McCormick explained.
The VA now has a computerized veterans benefits management system in all 56 regional offices. Its plan is to eliminate the backlog by 2015 with 98 percent accuracy using a more streamlined process, retraining workers and converting to electronic medical records. So far, progress has been slow.
Compared to the same time last year, claims more than 125 days old only dropped from 571,682 to 501,895 claims. Meanwhile, vets continue languishing in limbo, many unable to work and with no income.
"It often means eviction, car repossession, power being shut off,” said Paul Sullivan, managing director of public affairs and veterans outreach for Bergmann & Moore, LLC. “So the delays by VA have very serious harmful consequences for our vets.”
The law firm specializing in helping veterans across the country appeal their disability claims. Sullivan warns the political pressure to clear the backlog puts more emphasis on speed then getting claims right, increasing the number of appeals. Those appeals tend to take far longer to resolve and a surge in appeals create another backlog crisis.
"If a vet appeals a claim decision from VA, the vet waits another four years to get an answer on appeal," Sullivan said.
The VA already has 250,923 appeals pending. In some cases, veterans die waiting.
"That is a national tragedy,” said Sullivan. “It's truly unfortunate that hundreds of thousands of vets are waiting so long to get an answer. No vet should ever die waiting for the VA to process a disability claim.”
When Hutchins couldn't get answers from the VA himself, he turned to Virginia's Department of Veterans Services, which helps vets file for benefits. The state agency is independent of VA, but can access its records. In one of the 105 pages of e-mails he received from DVS, Hutchins was finally told in January there was no more it could do.
"I just checked the VA computer and it shows no new action. Nothing has changed," the e-mail read.
It then suggests "contact your federal elected official to get immediate action on your claim."
Hutchins did contact lawmakers in Congress, but they haven't gotten answers from the VA either.
"I've been waiting for almost 1,800 days,” he said. “It's hard not to be skeptical. After you've been told it's your fault, the paperwork didn't go through and that it's just not there.”
The VA attributes the backlog to a combination of factors: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a larger number of medical conditions per claim today and expanded benefits for Agent Orange, PTSD and Gulf War illness. Despite the reasons, all too many veterans feel they have been forgotten or as Hutchins puts it "misplaced might be a better word."
He has now spent more time battling the bureaucracy at home than he did in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting the enemy.