The New York Times / The Bay Citizen
By AARON GLANTZ
Even after Ian Rodriguez left the Marine Corps in 2006, he still felt like he was in Iraq.
The burly veteran, who played defensive end on the College of San Mateo football team before joining the military, would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night at home in San Bruno and grab his girlfriend, putting both hands around her neck.
“I had no ill will toward her,” Mr. Rodriguez, 28, said in an interview, “but while I was asleep I felt like I was still back there, and I acted it out.” He said he slept with a .40-caliber Glock pistol under his pillow and drank a bottle of whiskey every night to help him forget the war and fall asleep.
In December 2006, Mr. Rodriguez filed a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs, arguing that he deserved a monthly disability check and priority mental health care from the agency because of post-traumatic stress disorder. More than five years later, he is still waiting for a final determination on his case.
Mr. Rodriguez is one of 870,000 veterans nationwide who are waiting for a decision on a disability claim from the V.A. The waiting list has more than doubled since President Obama took office, despite the appropriation of more than $300 million for a new computer system and the hiring of thousands of claims professionals nationwide.
The problem is particularly acute in the Bay Area, where, according to figures provided by the V.A., returning soldiers wait an average of 313 days for a decision. Eighty percent must wait at least 125 days. Of the nearly 60 V.A. offices around the country, the Oakland office is the slowest.
“The place is filled with paper, piles of it, everywhere,” said Representative Jackie Speier, a Democrat from San Mateo who toured the Oakland office last month as part of a meeting with the agency’s regional director on behalf of a group of constituents with claims dating as far back as six years.
According to Ms. Speier, the backlog in Oakland has grown so severe that all new claims are immediately sent to V.A. offices in Lincoln, Neb., and Muskogee, Okla., where the backlog is less serious.
“It is an epidemic of delay,” Ms. Speier said. “I did not exactly leave invigorated.”
The Bay Citizen was denied a request to tour and photograph the department’s Oakland office and interview its director, Douglas Bragg. Mr. Bragg was unavailable for comment, according to Jessica Arifianto, an agency spokeswoman, but she released a statement from the office.
“We are continuously working to improve our timeliness and performance in our service to our veterans,” it said, citing “ongoing efforts” to improve the quality and timeliness of ratings decisions, including hiring additional staff members, using simpler forms and forming quality control teams.
The statement said the office was “taking steps” to meet a goal set by Eric Shinseki, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, to process all disability claims in fewer than 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015.
On a tour of a V.A. facility in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Mr. Shineski said that, nationally, he expected waiting times to be cut in half over the next year as the new strategies are implemented.
So far, however, there is little evidence of progress. According to government records, the number of V.A. disability claims, and the resulting backlog, has grown every year since Mr. Obama took office.
While the agency has modestly increased the number of claims processed each year, the number of new claims filed has increased by 48 percent over the last four years as a flood of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans return home and file disability claims seeking compensation for wounds suffered in the line of duty (677,000 as of October 2011).
At the same time, 231,000 Vietnam veterans have filed fresh disability claims related to diseases that the government only recently acknowledged stemmed from the spraying of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange.
“They build a technology infrastructure but haven’t pulled the trigger,” said Tom Tarantino, a former Army captain who works as a deputy policy director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “So all the extra money and full-time employees have done is prevent the problem from going way into the red. If they hadn’t been doing what they were doing, it would be a total disaster.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of veterans wait. “The V.A. is this monster paperwork machine,” said Mike Grabski, 32, an Army veteran of the war in Afghanistan who has been waiting since December 2009 for his disability paperwork to go through.
Mr. Grabski, who lives in Napa, is unemployed and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2007, Mr. Grabski’s friend, Staff Sgt. Larry Rougle, was killed by Taliban fighters. “Seeing your best friend full of holes is not fun,” he said.
Mr. Grabski said that in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder, he sustained a mild traumatic brain injury, shoulder and knee injuries and hearing loss related to bomb blasts during his tours as a paratrooper in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also suffers from asthma, which he said worsened as a result of his service.
“It’s been a constant heartache,” Mr. Grabski said of the disability claims process. “The money would be nice, but it’s not about the money. It’s about the care. I’ve got issues that need attending to.”
For Mr. Rodriguez, the Marine Corps veteran from San Bruno, the money is important. He filed his initial disability claim for post-traumatic stress disorder in December 2006 and received a 30 percent rating from the V.A. 403 days later, in January 2008.
Mr. Rodriguez said the rating, which entitles him to $389 a month in disability payments, is not generous enough to allow him to take off from work to attend counseling and group therapy sessions that the V.A. offers during business hours. He said he wants the department to give him a 70 percent disability rating, which would entitle him to $1,272 in compensation monthly.
In an interview, Mr. Rodriguez said he still experiences frequent flashbacks and intrusive feelings of guilt and grief, prompted by his experiences conducting house-to-house searches during his deployment in Iraq in 2004, as well as by a stint in New Orleans, where he deployed to collect bodies after Hurricane Katrina.
“If they upgraded my claim, I would be able to go to group therapy every day,” Mr. Rodriguez said, “and I hope I would get better.”
In handing down its initial 30 percent rating in 2008, the agency did not dispute Mr. Rodriguez’s description of his condition, but wrote that “to assign a greater evaluation, there must be reduced reliability and productivity.”
Michael Blecker, the executive director of Swords to Plowshares, a nonprofit veterans services organization that is helping Mr. Rodriguez with his appeal, said disability is not only about the ability to work. “It’s about somebody’s quality of life and making them whole from what they lost in the war,” he said.
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