Military veterans groups called on President Barack Obama to repair what they called a failed bureaucracy that requires former service members to wait months for disability benefits.
“The system is broken,” Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in the transcript of an interview taped for CNN’s “State of the Union” program on May 27. “The president has not been aggressive in tackling this backlog, which continues to plague our veterans nationwide.”
With thousands of troops coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of disability cases filed with the Department of Veterans Affairs jumped 48 percent over the past four years to 1.3 million in 2011. The department faces a backlog of about 905,000 claims, with 65 percent of them taking longer than the agency’s 125-day target for processing, according to tallies released this week.
“It is not acceptable,” Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who heads the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in an interview for the CNN program in advance of Memorial Day on May 28. “It doesn’t meet the guidelines of the VA. It doesn’t meet what the country expects.”
When asked why the backlog has persisted for years without improvement, Murray said, “It is such a complex problem. I’m not going to give anybody excuses, but I do need to remind all of us that the injuries that our soldiers are coming home with today -- what they are living through that previous generations of warriors did not survive -- are very complex.”
Tim Tetz, legislative director for the American Legion, said it can take as long as 400 days for troops who apply for disability benefits to receive them.
“Making them sit there and languish for 400 days while in some barracks on some base is absolutely an atrocity,” he said on the program.
Rieckhoff and Tetz agreed that unemployment remains the top concern of veterans coming home from war.
Among those 18 to 24 years old who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, the jobless rate last month was 18.6 percent, compared with 14.5 percent for non-veterans of that age group.
“That is still a striking number,” Tetz said. “That’s still far worse than other eras. But we are having a hard time having young people get jobs today.”
Obama signed legislation last year that offers tax credits for businesses that hire veterans and provides additional education and training programs for veterans seeking jobs.
Tetz said two-thirds of jobless veterans are 35 to 64 years old “and they might not have the resources, like the G.I. Bill and many of the other things, that these younger veterans have to use.”
A program announced this month by the Veterans Affairs and Labor departments lets veterans ages 35 to 60 receive benefits covering education costs for as long as one year.
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