When Willie Buckels applied for veterans health care after returning from Iraq, the back and knee injuries he suffered while rescuing a fuel truck during a mortar attack were not enough to guarantee him treatment.
The Mississippi reservist had to bring along Army paperwork proving his combat service because the Veterans Affairs Department still lacks a computer system that tracks a new applicant's service record.
More than a half-century ago, soldiers who fought in World War II were showing similar paper documents to ensure they got medical care.
"I took my paperwork, showed it to the VA, they got me in the system, got me an ID card and made appointments for doctors," said Buckels, who did not complain about his experience.
More critical, however, are lawmakers who have pressed the agency to make amends for the highly publicized problems it had serving veterans of the first Iraq war a decade ago.
"In this technologically advanced age," proof of service "can't be a sheet of paper crumbling around the edges," said Republican Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Nearly 18,000 soldiers who have returned from Iraq have sought care at VA health facilities, officials reported at the end of March. A separate report in mid-April said 4,000 troops from the war in Afghanistan sought care, although there is some overlap from those who served in both conflicts.
About 60 percent of the Iraq veterans and 84 percent of those from Afghanistan who sought VA care came from the National Guard and Reserves. The most common problems affected joints and back, teeth and the digestive system.
Mental disorders were diagnosed in 16 percent of the Afghanistan eterans and 15 percent of the Iraqi veterans.
The statistics reflect medical conditions regardless of their origin. They are not broken down by causes such as bullet wounds, blast injuries, accidents and illnesses.
With thousands more veterans expected to seek benefits and health care, the VA faces its biggest challenge since the early 1990s. Officials are well aware of the stakes.
"I believe the agency will be defined for generations by how well we take care of these returning troops," Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi, a combat-decorated Vietnam veteran, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The agency has a mixed record in dealing with the crush of new veterans.
The lack of a 21st-century computer operation is a black eye. Recently the VA health care director, Dr. Robert Roswell, resigned after the failure of a $472 million hospital computer system for veterans in Florida that was supposed to become a national model.
The department, in a statement, said it does not now have an automated way of identifying veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. "We rely on military records provided by the veteran," the VA said.
The Defense Department has compiled a computerized roster of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for the VA, but the list has many discrepancies, officials said.
Nonetheless, some returning veterans who expected long delays in qualifying for medical treatment say they were surprised how quickly they entered the VA system.
Sabrina Sue, a reservist from New York City, was told by a veteran of the first Gulf War to expect a year's wait to see a doctor for a service-connected thyroid condition. She waited only two weeks.
"I was amazed," said the supply specialist with the 340th Military Police Company, who also is entering a VA educational program.
Also impressed by his first VA experience was First Sgt. Gerry Mosley. He was injured with Buckels when the two members of the Army's 296th Transportation Co. freed the jammed air brakes of a truck in their convoy and jumped to the ground as mortars exploded around them.
"They're just awesome representatives," Mosley said.
To address the backlog of cases that delayed disability pay for veterans, the VA has hired 1,500 workers and formed special teams to reduce the March, 2002 peak of 233 days for an initial disability ruling. Today, the wait averages 171 days.
The agency also has extended hours at medical facilities, added examination rooms and hired or moved employees to reduce the backlog of veterans waiting for doctor's appointments. There were 176,000 veterans waiting for their first doctor's visit in July 2002, a number reduced to 3,242 currently.
Principi, who worked as the top deputy at the VA during the first Gulf War, is determined to avoid a repeat of the 1990s. Backlogs then led a congressional committee to accuse the agency of having "a "tin ear, cold heart and a closed mind" in caring for sick veterans.
The VA chief promises the new veterans, "I'm not going to wait until every "i" is dotted and every "t" is crossed to care for them."
If costs and money were not enough to challenge, there also is politics.
Veterans' attitudes toward government are crucial this election year, with President Bush's conduct of the Iraq war a growing campaign issue.
A Bush ad highlighted Democratic challenger John Kerry's vote last year against an $87 billion aid package for Iraq and Afghanistan, contending the vote denied body armor and higher combat pay for troops and better health care for reservists. Kerry has run ads featuring fellow Vietnam veterans to boost his claim that he can confront Bush on national security.
Veterans groups, who keep a close eye on the VA, give the agency a passing grade in absorbing the new entries but are not fully convinced the agency is up to the task.
"We're encouraged that the VA is reaching out to veterans" of the two recent wars, said Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center.
"But we feel it's very important that the VA address the veterans' needs physically, emotionally and spiritually to include psychological screenings, information pamphlets and hot lines for prevention of suicides. It's obvious to us that mental health disorders and psychological injuries are going to play an important role for the next 20 years."
By Larry Margasak
© 2004 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.