Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
Chairman Miller, Ranking Member Michaud, and Distinguished Members of the Committee:
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) would like to thank you for holding this hearing today on this critically important topic, and for your continued dedication to improving the functioning and capabilities of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) through oversight. We also appreciate this opportunity to share our views on finally ending the VA claims backlog.
IAVA is the country’s first and largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their supporters nationwide. Founded in 2004, our mission is to improve the lives of these veterans and their families. With over 200,000 members and supporters, we strive to create a country which honors and supports veterans of all generations.
My name is Tom Tarantino and I am the Chief Policy Officer for IAVA. I proudly served 10 years in the Army, beginning my career as an enlisted Reservist, and leaving service as an Active-Duty Cavalry Officer. Throughout those 10 years, my single most important duty was to take care of other soldiers. In the military, they teach us to have each other’s backs, both on and off the field of battle. And although my uniform is now a suit and tie, I am proud to work with this Congress to continue to have the backs of America’s service members and veterans.
The VA claims backlog has frustrated veterans across the country since IAVA’s inception. After a decade at war, more than half a million veterans are stuck in the VA disability claims backlog. According to the VA’s own estimates, 70 percent of claims are backlogged by more than 125 days. The VA has reported that the average wait time was 273 days. But if it’s your first claim, like it is for most Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, it’s actually 316 to 327 days. Regionally, the problem is worse. Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who live in major metropolitan areas wait up to twice as long – 642 days in New York, 619 days in Los Angeles, and 542 days in Chicago.
Disability benefits are designed to fill the gaps in loss of earnings potential that are caused by injuries sustained during military service. Long wait times have a devastating impact on veterans and their families who are trying to successfully transition to civilian life. After 10 years of war and billions of dollars spent, veterans are still languishing in a VA disability system that was obsolete before most veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were born. For our brothers and sisters from previous conflicts, this fight has gone on for decades.
Alone, these numbers would be shocking, but what makes them tragic is that they represent the stories of real people.
Take the case of Zack McIlwain. Zach is an Army veteran who served two combat tours in Iraq. He has been waiting nearly three years (973 days) to get all of his disability benefits. Zach tried to be proactive and filed his initial claim nearly a year before leaving the Army, but he heard nearly nothing for 18 months. In that time, a service related injury required surgery at the VA that lead to an infection that permanently damaged his left hand. This was added to his claim. When the VA finally ruled, it rated on all but his permanently damaged hand. Although service connected, the VA said that it lost the paperwork that related to his surgery, and he would have to appeal and send any new evidence later. That was a year ago. Zach has the paperwork that the VA lost and is ready to send it in but has heard nothing from the VA.
And then there is the case of Charles Gardner, a Navy Corpsman whose first day at Hospital Corpsman School was September 11, 2001. After six years of honorable service, including a deployment to Iraq from 2004-2005 with the 5th Marine Regiment, Charles began filing his VA disability claim toward the end of his term of service. After receiving conflicting information that initially delayed the filing of his claim, Charles eventually managed to file the claim correctly. But since doing so, Charles has been waiting for more than three years for a decision on his initial submission.
And finally, the story of John Wypyszinski. After serving for sixteen years in both the Army and the Navy, John filed a disability claim with the VA only to have his first claim lost. From 2007 through 2009, John pushed and waited for his claim to be completed with no results. Finally fed up, John retained an attorney and notified local media about his problem. In the end, the VA regional office that had been so slow to make progress on John’s file for all those years somehow managed to process his claim and get him his rating within days of being contacted by a local news affiliate.
These stories are just a few of the nearly half a million voices of the VA claims backlog. This week IAVA is brining veterans from around the country to Storm the Hill to call for an end to the VA claims backlog. Although the VA is in the process of modernizing the claims system, the backlog continues to grow with no end in sight. Although well intentioned, it is clear that the VA can’t solve this problem on its own. We must utilize all the resources and ingenuity that America has to offer to break the claims backlog and keep the promise we made to the millions of veterans who have sacrificed to defend our nation.
The time to act is now. IAVA is calling on President Obama to establish a presidential commission to end the claims backlog. We are asking the members of the committee to join us in this call while also continuing to investigate the causes of the backlog and to hold the VA’s leadership accountable. Veterans did not hesitate or delay in answering the call to serve their country. Now that they have returned, we owe it to them to answer their call to end the backlog.
Thank you for the opportunity to offer the views of our membership on this topic of critical importance, and we look forward to continuing to work with you and with the VA to improve the lives of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families. Thank you for your time and attention.