Honor And Sacrifice: The Two VAs

Correspondent Wyatt Andrews has a glimpse of some casualties of war you may not have heard about: veterans buried by bureaucracy.

We often lament the fact that over 3,000 Americans have died in Iraq, but here's another number the nation has yet to confront: 176,000. This is the number of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have filed disability claims with the Department of Veteran's Affairs -- a number that has swamped VA, or to be more accurate, buried the VA in paperwork. Because of a pre-existing backlog of claims (which depending on how you count it ranges from 400,000 to 600,000!), thousands of returning vets are waiting far too long for claims determinations--and benefits--at a time when they've been retired from the service and are out on the economy, looking for work, searching for the next phase in their lives and expecting a bit more from the people who sent them to war.

In our Evening News story tonight, we profile a 23-year-old Iraq amputee, Sean Lewis of Dale City Virginia, a now-retired Army veteran who lost most of his right leg and some of this hearing to a mortar blast. Sean, like a lot of veterans we spoke to, tells the story of how there are two VA's. There's the VA Hospital system, which (after waiting for their appointments) most vets rate as excellent. And then there's the VA benefit claim system which Sean calls, "horrible...probably the worst in the world." After 8 months he's still waiting for a final disability rating, which determines his check. To be fair to the VA, the system began partial payments to him based on his lost leg, but the rest of the story he tells -- of lost records, duplicate doctors' appointments and constant bureaucratic delay -- amounts to what he calls "eight months of chasing your tail." The VA told him just last week they've resolved all but two of his claims--in other words, it's still not final.

His story is important because he isn't alone. Every major Veterans' Service Organization, the VFW, American Legion, DAV, AmVets, all of the agencies that deal with the VA every day say the agency is overwhelmed, burdened by a cumbersome appeals process and badly in need of more staff.

The only person we found to disagree with the staffing problem is the Secretary of the DVA, Jim Nicholson, who told me the VA is properly staffed and funded. My bet is he's in for a pounding from the new Democratic Congress, which has a whole series of hearings scheduled on how to reduce the backlog and upgrade the system after 5 plus years of war.

I think most Americans will find unacceptable the very notion that returning veteran's might be ill-served in any way.

  • Wyatt Andrews

    Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.