Rebecca Tews sat at her kitchen table in North Aurora, Illinois, stared into her laptop and tried to find a place for her family to live.
The 43-year-old psychologist spent seven years fighting for disability benefits for her husband, Duane Kozlowski, after he left the U.S. Army, unable to hold a job because of brain damage and post-traumatic stress. She borrowed $20,000 from her father’s and grandfather’s retirement accounts, stopped paying her student loans and ran up tens of thousands of dollars in bills for Duane’s tests and medical care.
While she eventually got the benefits, her credit is in ruins. This month, an eviction notice was taped to the door of her rented 5-bedroom home. She’s worried about finding a landlord willing to rent to her, Duane and five children.
“It’s basically been like a tornado,” she said of her struggle with the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department. “It’s wiped out our future. It’s wiped out our relationship with our extended family. It’s wiped everything out and we’re starting out again below ground.”
Tews and Kozlowski, 44, are among thousands of former soldiers and their families suffering the effects of a Veterans department overwhelmed by a decade of fighting overseas. With the Iraq war finished and troops returning from Afghanistan, record numbers of former service members are turning to the federal government for disability pay, adding to a backlog of claims and delays that have dogged the agency for years.
Troops Come Home
The number of disability cases filed with the Veterans department jumped 48 percent over the past four years to 1.3 million in 2011. The agency expects demands from wounded veterans to rise as more leave the military, Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki told Congress in February.
About 905,000 claims are pending at the department, 65 percent of them are taking longer than the agency’s 125-day target for dealing with them, according to tallies released this week. Disputes can draw out that process: A federal court ruling in May 2011 said it takes an average of more than four years for veterans to receive a final decision. Many have died waiting.
The backlog is adding to the pressures of post-military life, said David Autry, a Washington-based spokesman for Disabled American Veterans, an advocacy group that assists former service members with their claims. With the economy struggling to recover from the longest recession since World War II, 29 percent of young male veterans were unemployed in 2011, compared with 18 percent for young men who didn’t serve.
“It’s a huge financial burden,” Autry said, referring to those who are waiting on the government. “A lot of veterans feel betrayed after being wounded, injured or sickened in the service of the country. The government is just not fulfilling their promises to them.”
About a third of those returning from deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq may suffer from brain injuries, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD, according to a study by Santa Monica, California-based Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization.
Advances in medicine and military technology also let soldiers survive attacks that once would have been fatal. Wounded veterans from post-Sept. 11 wars report an average of 8.5 disabling conditions per claim, more than twice those of prior wars, according to Secretary Shinseki.
Other factors have also contributed: aging veterans, a decision to expand diseases recognized for Vietnam-era claims related to Agent Orange and a slow-growing economy, according to the Veterans department.
Allison Hickey, the veterans department’s undersecretary for benefits, said the agency is trying to speed up processing. It is installing new electronic record-keeping systems; has put new review teams at regional offices; and is moving to respond more quickly to easy-to-review claims while directing more experienced workers to complex cases.
“In 2015, our requirement is no claim over 125 days,” she said. “And we are working to get there.”
U.S. Representative Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican who leads the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said it’s not coming fast enough.
“The VA is failing veterans who wait months, sometimes years, to have their claim processed,” Miller said. “In just the past three years, not only have we seen the backlog grow exponentially, but there has been a lot of talk from VA about the backlog with little progress.”
War Pay Gone
Michael Wade, a former Army reservist who lives in Alexander, Arkansas, said he returned from Iraq in 2005 unable to hold a job and wrestling with anxiety attacks, headaches and nightmares that prevented him from sleeping.
He said he sought disability pay for PTSD and other injuries in early 2007. A year later, he said, the Veterans agency awarded him $123 a month for a neck injury. It wasn’t until 2011 that the government recognized his PTSD, boosting his pay to about $1,250 a month, he said. During the wait, he used up the $8,000 he saved while in Iraq on routine living expenses and ran up $3,000 in family debts.
“Somebody who went through what we did over there, they shouldn’t have to fight for four years to get what they deserve,” said Wade, 40. “I’ve got friends of mine, they’re going through the same thing.”
The claim system that pays benefits to disabled veterans has been the subject of scrutiny since at least 1996, when a special commission advised Congress on ways to fix it.
In 2007, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth sued the federal government for failing to provide pay or health care on time. In May 2011, U.S. Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt said the delays deprive former service members of their rights, and that the agency’s “unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough,” in a ruling by an appeals panel. On May 7, a larger group of jurists reversed that decision, saying the courts lack jurisdiction to address it.
Recent reports by the Veterans department’s inspector general have also faulted the agency. Inspections of offices in San Diego, Oakland and Los Angeles found as many as 60 percent of disability claims it reviewed were processed incorrectly. The reports said oversight was also needed to deal with claims pending more than a year. In Oakland, one had been awaiting action for more than 8 years.
Tews in Illinois said she started worrying about Duane in 2003 during phone calls home from South Korea, where he was deployed to maintain helicopters used in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Duane had done maintenance work since joining the Army in 1986. Over the next eight years, he says his job exposed him to toxic chemicals for as long as eight hours or more, sometimes leaving him drenched in fuel and cleaning solvents in cramped spaces where he labored without protective gear.
One day in 1996 at Ft. Eustis in Virginia, she said Duane woke up with a headache and abdominal pain, and with no memory of the night before. Three weeks later -- after coughing up blood -- he underwent surgery to staunch the bleeding. His heart stopped twice on the operating table and he had to be resuscitated, she said. Medical scans later found that he had brain damage consistent with oxygen deprivation during the surgery and with exposure to neurotoxins, according to records she filed with his claim.
Beaten by Comrades
The injuries that forced the surgery were the result of an assault by Duane’s fellow soldiers, Tews said in documents submitted in connection with her husband’s claim for disability benefits. This beating also left Duane with PTSD, she said.
Vicki Bowker, a spokeswoman for Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Fort Eustis, Virginia, said she couldn’t comment because records of such incidents would no longer be kept at the base.
In July 2003, after Duane showed signs of emotional distress and complained of headaches, the Army gave him a hardship discharge and sent him home, Rebecca said. He got and then lost a $46,000-a-year job as a systems analyst with a military contractor after less than a year. Later, a $5.75-an-hour job at a Plainfield, Illinois, pizza shop lasted two weeks.
Duane was unable to balance a checkbook, follow directions or read social cues, his wife says. He was also irritable and angry. “I didn’t get back the man I sent,” she said.
In October 2004, Duane sought disability pay. A year later, the Veterans department determined that he was 30 percent disabled. Currently, such a rating gives a veteran with a wife and a child $469 a month, compared with $3,037 for someone 100 percent disabled.
Rebecca says appealing the decision and caring for her husband became a full-time job. The family was on and off welfare. Two cars were repossessed. They lost two rent-to-own homes because they couldn’t make rent payments. She lost two teaching jobs because caring for her husband made her schedule unpredictable. He was in and out of doctors’ offices and hospitals.
In August 2006, the Veterans department deemed him 100 percent disabled. It took two more years of appeals to get medical benefits for her family.
In April 2011, Duane was awarded extra pay to former service members in need of extra help in their daily lives. That boosted the family’s income to about $4,000 a month. Rebecca later qualified for another $1,200 a month to care for her husband under a law President Barack Obama signed to give added support to caregivers of veterans of the post-Sept. 11 wars.
Planned Life Gone
Nine years after Duane’s return, their credit is destroyed. Their landlord is losing the house they live in to foreclosure. As they prepared to find a new place to live, the entryway was full of their childrens’ artwork, and a family-made wall hanging that read “Impossible is not a word.”
“The life that we planned is completely gone,” she said.
In Killeen, Texas, former Army sergeant Hector Esparza is hounded by nightmares and flashbacks from his days as a gunner escorting convoys through Baghdad in 2004 and 2005, during the bloodiest days of the Iraq war. He also has headaches, the legacy of a brain injury received when a rocket hit his Humvee.
Esparza lost a job at a juvenile jail and built up $25,000 in credit-card debt that he can’t pay. He has a pregnant wife, a six-year old daughter and a mortgage that is a monthly struggle to pay. He is rated 60 percent disabled, with pay of $1,200 a month from the Veterans department. He gets $1,000 more each month from the U.S. Social Security Administration.
Feeling Lied To
Since 2009, Esparza said, he’s been trying to qualify for full disability payments because he’s unable to work, as much as he wants to. In April he received a letter from the agency. With so many claims piling up, it said, it could take another six months to get to his.
“I was pretty confident that I was going to be taken care of and my family was going to be taken care of,” Esparza said. “I feel lied to and disappointed because I don’t see that happening.”
He says it’s a stretch just to pay for gas to drive to an agency office 30 minutes away for post-traumatic stress treatment. On a recent trip to the grocery store, he had to turn down his daughter when she asked for a bag of Doritos. He didn’t have the money.
“I feel like they’re better off without me, like I’m holding them back,” he said. “And even though my wife says she’s happy, I know that somebody else could take better care of her financially than I could. I don’t want another family going through what I went through.”
Ranks to Grow
The number of disabled veterans like Esparza is expected to continue to grow. With 1 million troops leaving the military over the next five years, demand on the department is expected to grow for the “foreseeable future,” Secretary Shinseki told Congress in February.
In Newport News, Virginia, the center of a region dotted by military bases, the Veterans Support Organization received calls every week from former service members looking for financial help as they wait for benefit checks to come through, said David Knapp, who was director of the group there until he left last month to take over in Pennsylvania.
“I can’t give them the kind of money that they need,” he said. “The only agency that can give these soldiers the support they need is the VA.”
In Shingle Springs, California, 40 miles east of Sacramento, Sheryl Gielenz, a 26-year old mother of two, this year sold her family’s possessions -- a dining room table, a children’s dresser, a snowmobile -- to pay bills.
Selling the House
Her husband, Forrest Gielenz, was discharged from the Army in 2008 after serving in Iraq and struggles with post-traumatic stress. One evening in September, he became convinced that Iraqi insurgents were surrounding the house and threatened police officers who came to investigate. He was arrested and placed in treatment for post-traumatic stress in connection with his case.
Sheryl said Forrest appealed for an increase in his $1,600 a month disability benefit.
“We’re not expecting to get anything soon,” she said as she waited. In the meantime, USA Cares, a private charity for military families, helps to pay her mortgage.
Earlier this month, Sheryl agreed to sell her home and is planning to move in with her mother in Pennsylvania. She said her husband will follow when he’s released from treatment.
In Illinois, Rebecca Tews is sorting through papers and packing up toys her children would rather play with.
“The thing that keeps me going is I know we’re not the only ones,” she said. “It’s appalling what’s out there. But we’re survivor families and we’re going to make it work.”