'Heartbreaking' wait for help from veterans returning from war

11:11 PM, May 19, 2013   |    comments
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By Kay Quinn

ST. LOUIS (KSDK) - This story may make you feel embarrassed for your country. Injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are waiting years for their disability benefits. And the delays aren't the only statistics that are staggering.

So are the numbers of veterans caught up in the system.

NewsChannel 5's Kay Quinn spoke with one of just one of the 568,000 vets waiting for a fair shake from the country they fought years to protect.

"I love you Dad. I love you," said 5-year-old Seth Young.

For 28-year-old Mark Young, his son Seth makes life worth living. But all that love can't erase the memories of two tours of duty and several years of combat.

"Iraq was pretty awful," said Young.

Video taken from the helmet cam of a fellow soldier when Young served in Afghanistan from March 2010 to August 2011 shows just how awful it was. It was this army staff sergeant's second tour, second experience with combat after serving in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.

"I got hurt October 27," said Young.

That day, while in a tent lifting weights, his base came under fire and one of those mortars almost killed him.

"Ran out the back of the tent went running around some barriers started to run down into the mortar pit and that's the last thing I remember," said Young. "A mortar round landed in the mortar pit while I was running through it."

Young suffered a major head injury including damage to his cranial nerve. Two years earlier, in Iraq, one of the concussions he suffered broke his jaw. The effects still linger today.

"Migraines, I get them constantly," said Young.

He gets therapy through the VA two days a week. It helps with his headaches, memory problems, and sensitivity to light. But it creates other problems too.

"If I go up there two days a week, that leaves me three days to work and then it becomes impossible to hold down a normal job," said Young.

Young filed a disability claim in November 2011. Periodically, he'd check on-line for progress. One year later he found out the VA had finally just opened his case. Then, nothing again until early April of this year.

"My first phone call was, 'We don't have your medical records,' even though they told me they did. So I guess they lost my medical records," he said.

And Young's case is just one of thousands.

"All this red tape, it just drives guys away from the help they need," said Young.

The Office of the Veterans Service Commission in north St. Louis County is responsible for processing veterans' disability claims. To give you the scope of how big the problem is, there are 18,000 claims waiting to be processed for vets in the state of Missouri alone. Those are vets who served not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Vietnam and even World War II.

The average wait in the state of Missouri is 370 days. In the state of Illinois, there are more than 20,000 vets waiting an average of 465 days. Nationwide, 245,000 vets have been waiting more than one year for disability.

"It's heartbreaking is what it is," said Douglas Meyer, director of Missouri Veterans Service Commission. He is in charge of processing the claims for the Veterans Administration, and admits the wait is inexcusable.

How the VA got here is complicated. In 2000, a law changed making the VA responsible for developing well-rounded claims for veterans, instead of veterans having to assemble their claims themselves. Then, another law changed allowed Vietnam vets to file retroactive claims for exposure to Agent Orange. The caseload for disability doubled.

"You can see how it would slow things down," said Meyer.

Pair that with veterans returning from two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and soldiers, according to the VA, with more complicated injuries.

According to Meyer there's a way for vets to cut their wait by 200 days. Get the help of a veterans' service officer who can work up a fully-developed claim. It's a free service available on both sides of the river.

"Missouri Veterans Commission, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, these service organizations all have service officers there to get with a service officer. They will help you in filing these fully developed claims."

Meyer says the Missouri Veterans Commission ranks fourth in the country as far as the percentage of fully developed claims that are being sent to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA is also initiating a paperless system which is expected to help reduce the backlog. The goal is to get to under 125 days by the year 2015.

For Young, it's not about the money anymore.

"It's about doing the right thing I suppose. Getting what you earned," he said.

Here are organizations that offer free help from veterans service officers. These officers can help veterans file and process their claims.

In Belleville, Ill., the Belleville Veteran Service Office is located on the campus of Southwestern Illinois College, 2500 Carlyle Avenue, Belleville, IL, 62221. Michelle Bess and Alvin Pilot can be reached at 618-222-5226.

In St. Louis, veterans' service officers can be reached at the VA Regional Office, Room 107, 400 South 18th Street, St. Louis, MO, 63103. The phone number is 314-552-9885.

You can also call 1-866-VET-INFO or 1-866-838-4636.

Look for additional links to more veterans' service information in the "Related links" section to the left of this story.



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