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Experts: N. Texas Not Prepared To Help Influx Of Military Vets

NORTH TEXAS (CBS 11 NEWS) - Shortly after U.S. Army Scout Steve Blackman retired from the military three years ago, he says he slipped into depression. "I was falling into a very dark place. I didn't know if I was going to make it out."

After seven years in the military, including a one-year tour through Iraq, Blackman has post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

After suffering 33 concussions, he is now in a wheelchair for serious back injuries. Blackman says it took the Veterans Administration (VA) more than two years to pay him full disability benefits.

He's not alone. The VA's own records show as of November 2, there were some 705,113 veterans, nationwide, caught up in a huge backlog, waiting for the agency to either approve or reject their disability compensation claims.

Government statistics show nationally, it takes on average more than 310 days for the VA to make a disability decision.

In the VA's regional office in Waco, which includes coverage for all of North Texas, there are 26,353 veterans waiting to hear about their disability compensation claims. Records show, the average wait in the Waco region is more than 354 days -- just shy of one year.

The VA has made some progress reducing the backlog. But the agency still processed 100,000 fewer claims in fiscal year 2013 than its original goal.

Blackman says, "It's unfair that a lot of us who have given so much have to continue to wait or have to do more."

Community groups told CBS 11 News that by the end of 2014, some 26,000 veterans will leave the military and move to North Texas, making it the top choice in the nation.

Donna Cranston says she's helped 500 veterans since establishing the not for profit group, Defenders of Freedom in 2004. She says this area isn't ready to provide veterans the help they need. "That's very sad. With all that we have here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, you would think we have had done more."

According to experts, many veterans, especially disabled ones, don't have the necessary job skills to find work, and won't have enough money to get by each month.

Blackman and his wife say while they waited for the VA to pay his full disability benefits, they would have been homeless had it not been for Cranston. "There was four months where Defenders of Freedom paid my bills -- all of them because we didn't know if we could make a payment, if we could keep the lights on."

Cranston said the service her non-profit provides should be automatic. "We are not taking care of our troops, the men and women who put their lives on the line for us. When they come home, they shouldn't have to worry about where they're going to live, how they're going to feed their family."

Maurine Dickey, a former Dallas County Commissioner, said that in addition to the VA's backlog of disability claims, there isn't much transitional housing available to veterans. "Someone has to be chronically homeless for a year, and be able to prove they've been in a homeless shelter before the VA can give them a voucher or HUD can help them with housing."

Dickey has established the not-for-profit group; Hope for the Brave, which works with multiple veterans groups, including Defenders of Freedom. Participating locations of her family's Dickey's Barbecue will donate 10-percent of all sales of holiday meals to Hope for the Brave during November and December of 2013. Dickey said the donations are to, "… give them a hand up, instead of a handout."

As he continues to wait on his disability decision, Blackman has a message for the public: "It's going to take people that have heart, that care, that don't flick through the news, watch it before they go to bed, see a request and say hmm, that kind of touches me, then a few days later, not even think twice about it."

But there is some good news to report. Just last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed four bills. The legislation includes establishing a taskforce to examine the VA's backlog in disability claims and provide solutions by 2015, and setting up an economic opportunity administration within the VA to help transition veterans to civilian life.

(©2013 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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