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Wondering Why Your VA Disability Claim is Taking So Long?

The percentage of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans applying for veterans' disability benefits has hit an all-time high, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. 45 percent of the 1.6 million veterans who were deployed overseas to fight in those conflicts have applied for disability benefits. That is more than twice the rate for Gulf War veterans - 21 percent of these veterans are estimated to have applied for and received disability benefits.

In addition to the high numbers, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have more impairments than veterans of past wars. For example, Vietnam veterans currently receive disability benefits for an average of four conditions. Korean War veterans on average received benefits for just two conditions. Iraq and Afghanistan vets, on the other hand, apply for benefits claiming 11 to 14 impairments.

What's going on? Some analysts point to the weak economy. Others note that thanks to improved medical treatment, soldiers today are more likely to survive wounds that would have killed them only a few years ago. Finally, today's veterans are applying for disability benefits in a climate that has far more awareness of the consequences of concussion, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, military sexual trauma and other injuries that were not taken as seriously in previous wars.

The Associated Press conducted an in-depth investigation, reviewing records and speaking with doctors, government employees and veterans to get information about new veterans and their disabilities. The AP found that these veterans are different from those who came before.

More are from the Reserves and National Guard -28 percent.. After previous wars, most claims came from soldiers who enlisted or were drafted (in the case of Vietnam veterans). Guard and reserve troops make up a greater proportion of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan than in previous wars. More new vets are women, and are claiming PTSD because of sexual assault, know sexual trauma (MST). Many more vets have completed multiple deployments than in previous wars.

Other statistics about current veterans disabilities include:

  • Hearing problems are rampant, with350,000 reporting tinnitus and 177,000 diagnosed with hearing loss
  • 1,600 veterans have lost one or more limbs, with many more suffering the loss of fingers and toes
  • 156 are totally blind
  • 200 vets are so badly disfigured that they may need face transplants
  • More than 400,000 have been treated for mental health problems, primarily PTSD
  • 20 percent of troops suffered some level of concussion - no one knows what the future holds for them, although concussion appears to make victims more susceptible to PTSD
  • 19 percent of vets need orthopedic surgery

The sheer volume of disability claims, the fact that many more vets have multiple and complex conditions, and the ability of Vietnam vets to apply for impairments related to Agent Orange exposure resulted in significant delays.

At present, the VA is reporting a backlog of approximately 560,000 claims older than 125 days. And it's not just the volume and complexity of claims. The VA has more than 56 regional offices, with 4.4 million paper case files. The lack of a centralized online system slows the process considerably. Veterans having problems obtaining VA disability benefits may wish to work with an advocate who can guide them through the process. At The Rep for VetsTM, a national veterans disability company, we help disabled veterans obtain the benefits to which they are entitled.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, "Iraq, Afghan vets file for disability at high rate," by Marilynn Marchione, June 3, 2012.

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