NORTH TEXAS (CBS 11 I-TEAM) - The Veterans Administration says they're working hard to fix their backlog of medical claims.
But the CBS 11 I-Team has uncovered a new problem faced by veterans and their families. Disability benefits denied and the appeals process taking years, even decades to be approved.
Most of the veterans the I-Team spoke to say they expect to receive denied benefits their first time applying. But they don't expect to wait so long that they die from their illnesses.
And that's exactly what's happening.
Veterans are dying and leaving their spouses or even children to continue their fight.
Here is one of their stories.
When Army Captain Nick Lundy hit the jungles of Vietnam in the summer of '65, he served in missions, which kept him away from base.
"They slept on the ground. They ate the food. They lived in the small villages with the indigenous people," recounts Lundy's widow, Peggy Lundy.
In a letter written to his parents during the war, Captain Lundy described a gray dust. The dust was Agent Orange, a toxic chemical sprayed to help clear the brush for troops.
Lundy described how the ominous dust settled on "everything… people, machines, dogs and food."
A true soldier, he didn't want his parents to worry, writing: "The rains will soon come and will wash out the rice paddies and the season will be fine." But nothing was ever fine, according to Mrs. Lundy.
When her husband returned from war torn Vietnam he finished law school and eventually worked as a Dallas county judge.
All the while battling some sort of illness.
"I wanted to take the pain. Just a little of it. I just wanted to releave him a little bit but there was no way," said Mrs. Lundy. Back then doctors had a hard time diagnosing Judge Lundy's illness. His military discharge files said he had a heart condition.
Lundy filed his first claim with the Veterans Administration asking for disability benefits in 1979. It was denied.
In the '80s Judge Lundy's health worsened.
"There would be these tumors that would come up under his skin. They would be these watery tumors that we now know were part of the poisons. And he had to have them cut off," Lunday told us. "One of them grew so big on the back of his neck that it threw his neck forward."
Captain Nick Lundy had more than 40 surgeries, including a liver transplant.
Sadly, he passed away in 1991. During that whole time he appealed his benefits case; claiming his injuries were a direct result of Agent Orange exposure.
"He gave his life. He died," according to Mrs. Lundy. "He was killed there but he died here."
Mrs. Lundy continued to fight for her husband's benefits after his death.
After being denied more than half-a-dozen times, Peggy Lundy hired an attorney who specializes in VA benefits law.
"Is it fair? No. No, it's absolutely not," said Dallas attorney Chris Attig. "I mean, it's part of the contract we all believe, the silent contract that's there that says if we serve, if something happens to us while we're serving, that our country will take care of us."
The common myth that a veteran's benefits claim dies with them isn't true, according to Attig.
"When a veteran dies the spouse has a certain amount of time that they can step into that claim," said Attig.
Since 2009, the I-Team uncovered more than 150 cases out of the North Texas region that were denied or dismissed because the veteran who filed the appeal died during the process.
There were some cases filed on behalf of WWII Veterans as far back as 1950.
In two of these cases the widows of the veterans picked up the claims and also died before a decision was made.
"I think there's more surviving spouses that have not claimed or have walked away from their claims out of frustration or exasperation."
Peggy Lundy was awarded widows' benefits last December.
But her fight is far from over and she continues to ask for the disability benefits her husband fought for.
"Nick is gone and it's been 35 years for him. It's been 50 years since his war. It's been 22 years since his death. So, what is the right amount of time to wait?" asks Mrs. Lundy.
If a veteran dies while waiting on their benefits appeal their spouse or children only have a year to take over the claim. But after that the claim dies.
The I-Team reached out to the regional VA office out of Waco. They directed CBS 11 to their media people in Washington D.C. who say they're working to provide more information.
The VA did send the following document that explains a bit about the appeals process, which also lends some understanding of how long appeals can go on depending on the circumstances of the case.
In addition to the document, the VA provided the following illustration about the life cycle of a VA appeal.
for more features.