Iraq veterans find the war is at home with red tape

SAN FRANCISCO — Glenda Flowers stood at the edge of a crowd of angry veterans at San Francisco's War Memorial building. They had been waiting months, even years, to hear whether they would receive disability benefits, and they were tired of excuses.

Flowers, a 31-year-old Iraq veteran and mother of two, had come to the meeting with a pair of Veterans Affairs officials because she wanted to be heard. But she was trying too hard to fight back tears to take the microphone.

The social worker who accompanied her couldn't let her be overlooked.

"Nobody brought up here that a lot of these young vets have children," said Marcy Orosco, who heads a Salvation Army transitional housing program in San Francisco. "Because of this wait, she was living in her car with her children.… What are you going to do about that?"

Flowers, a small, compact woman eager for adventure, thought the Army would be her life. But when her marriage to a fellow soldier and her mental health collapsed under the strain of their tours to Iraq, she found herself alone with her children facing the prospect of another deployment.

She left the Army in January 2010 and submitted a benefits claim the same month, citing post-traumatic stress disorder and injuries from years of parachute jumps, among other ailments.

She didn't know it at the time, but her application would become a case study in the kinds of issues that can delay a claim.

Another Iraq veteran, Ari Sonnenberg, said the agonizing wait and bureaucratic bungling added to an already painful transition to civilian life. He wonders how many people will want to serve in the future.

"I never used to understand why the Vietnam guys were so bitter," he said. "We're very quick to send people to war, but we're super slow taking care of those people that actually make that sacrifice."

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Willie Clark, the western-area director for the VA's Veterans Benefits Administration, made a promise that April day in San Francisco:

"We're going to start with our oldest cases, cases in excess of two years, we're going to complete every one of them and we're going to do so within the next 60 days.

"And once we fix those," he said, "we'll start with our 1-year-old cases.... We owe it to you to get this done."

In the months since the meeting, the VA has made progress, reducing the number of claims pending more than 125 days by 35%, from a peak of 611,000 in March.

A new computer system is helping to speed up claims processing, which until this year was still mostly handled on paper — about 5,000 tons of it a year, officials said. Additional staff has been hired, training has been revamped and the work flow has been reorganized.

The partial government shutdown in October was a temporary setback, forcing the department to suspend mandatory overtime for claims processors. When the department resumed full operations, officials said, they couldn't keep their promise to clear out all cases that had been pending more than a year by the end of the month.

But as of Nov. 4, 94% of these claims had been processed, according to VA figures. By 2015, officials are promising to process all claims within 125 days.

Although a growing number of veterans are now receiving aid, they say the damage done to their financial stability, family relationships and own self-worth is not so easily remedied.

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Sonnenberg, a pale, wiry bundle of nerves who deployed three times to Iraq, didn't attend the San Francisco meeting. He took part in a similar forum last year and couldn't face another round. He sent some of his artwork to be displayed in his place.