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For US Troops, The Toughest Battle Is Waiting For Them Back At Home

Published: April 3, 2013
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The Marine Corps recruiter never told me the biggest battle would be waged right here at home.

Whether it be to secure a disability pension for ills caused from military service, or to cash in education benefits to go college, dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs is painful.

I am certainly not alone. There are more than 900,000 veterans waiting in the V.A. backlog — a mostly paper-based system riddled with technology issues, long waits, and layers of bureaucracy. Since 2005, the case load has continued to worsen.

It's so bad that the wait time for claims at some offices has skyrocketed well over 600 days, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting.

And while the U.S. military was able to adapt to changes on the battlefield (like the adoption of counterinsurgency doctrine in 2006), the V.A. has not.

"This country is capable of drafting you, putting you in boot camp, teaching you to kill someone, and then putting you in a war zone within six months," writes Jim Strickland on the masthead of his VA Watchdog website. "So, why can't they process a claim that fast?"

It's a pointed criticism of an agency that so far has failed to upgrade all of their systems to electronic, and is increasingly forced to file away claims for years at a time while sustained war produces more and more.

"It's sort of the old 'turn a P-51 into an F-18 while in flight' comparison," Brandon Friedman, former communications director for V.A., recently told me over Twitter. "While VA is converting, the Department is still processing nearly 100,000 claims a month right now."

And Craig Newmark, founder of Craiglist and advisor to a number of veterans groups, puts it this way:

The VA disability claims process has been like a car with the "check engine light" on for a decade or longer. Wasn't much of a problem until maybe around 2005, when the car filled up, and more people needed that ride. Vets needed a much bigger car back then, but that costs money, and no one in Washington stood up for that.

But more importantly than pointing out the problem, Newmark offers solutions. In a piece published Tuesday in The Huffington Post, he offers technology recommendations, cross-talk between federal agencies (Ironically, the V.A. and the Military health system don't transfer records very well), and changing the culture inside the organization.

Newmark writes:

Turns out that VA has 56 regional offices, each running the old paper-based system, that's like 56 cars that are breaking down, some badly. The challenge is to replace each old car with new ones, while gracefully transferring riders to the new cars. In practice, that means getting a lot of paper scanned into the new systems, a lot of work. Key to that is getting everyone on board.

Whether that happens is anyone's guess, but they appear to be trying. In a press release on their official website, the VA says they have implemented a paperless system in 18 offices (as of Dec. 2012) with full deployment to the rest by the end of 2013.

That move goes along with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's promise to end the backlog by 2015, although his pledge follows a 'backlog of promises' as Leo Shane points out at Stars and Stripes.

"It takes too long to make a claim, and the error rate is too high. The vets don't care about the process, they care about the outcome," Secretary Anthony Principi said in 2001.

Sadly, he's still right.

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