Veterans finally receiving long-awaited VA benefits


Edwin Del Rio served four years in the Marine Corps, including a tour in Afghanistan. He was an assaultman in an infantry unit. Del Rio came home with foot, knee and ankle problems, but the most serious injury has been post-traumatic stress disorder, including flashbacks from the time he came upon a family that had been murdered by the Taliban.

"I started having nightmares, insomnia and just mood swings right in the middle of the day; in the middle of class, I'd have to leave. I'd get panic attacks," he said.

Del Rio filed a disability claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs, seeking compensation for his injuries. Then he waited. And waited.

"There's times when I was just living off Top Ramen noodles for several weeks, and like I said, I'd take out payday loans because I didn't have enough money to get myself through the month," he said.

Two years passed before the VA granted his claim. By then, Del Rio had racked up more than $10,000 in debt.

The agency ultimately cut him a check for $31,000, which included back pay for all those months of waiting. Del Rio was finally able to pay off his debts.

"It definitely makes me feel more secure financially, and that if I need something that's supposed to be provided through VA, eventually, they will provide it," Del Rio said.

The Center for Investigative Reporting has found that across the country, veterans like Del Rio are finally receiving their long-awaited benefits. Now, the average wait time nationwide has plummeted by nearly four months.

In Los Angeles, where the wait had been 14 months on average, delays are now down to about 10 months. Still, officials say that's not good enough.

Members of Congress have repeatedly called on VA officials to testify about the long wait times.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki is now expediting a new computer system and forcing all employees to work mandatory overtime.

"We have set a long-term goal of ending the backlog by 2015," Shinseki said.

Still, many critics say not enough is being done. The new computer system crashes regularly, and employee overtime won't last forever.

At the American Legion in Culver City, Vietnam veteran Dave Culmer has spent the last 40 years helping veterans get their benefits. He's worried about what will happen when the attention starts to fade.

"When the pressure is reduced, and the 'dog and pony shows' go away, and the tents are folded and they are out of town, what happens? How do they perform at that point in time?" Culmer said.

Even with the improvements, hundreds of thousands of veterans are still waiting.

Iraq War veteran Jason Ayala filed his claim almost two years ago. The former Army sergeant from San Bernardino has severe back problems and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, but he says he can't afford to take time off from his job to see a doctor.

"Not having that claim disability approved, I can't have regular check-ups, nor will I be compensated for the time I have to miss from work for an existing condition that has nothing to do with my job now," Ayala said.

Ayala is finally now seeing a VA-contracted doctor and is on the way to getting medical help. But he also hopes his fellow veterans can get the help they deserve.

"I've seen a lot of good guys get out of the military get stuck in this backlog, and most of them wind up getting in trouble. Most of them don't get the compensation they need," Ayala said. "That little buffer would help them identify with the problem, get the treatment and continue on with their life."

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