By The Gazette Editorial Board
Our soldiers face more than homesickness when they’re sent to combat zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Danger is a constant. Many days, just surviving until the next is mighty hard.
So when they’re wounded or otherwise injured during their tour of duty, a caring nation and its government should provide adequate medical and other related support. Sadly, the battle for these benefits too often is slow and painful — especially considering they were earned by serving one’s country.
Last Sunday’s report by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a non-profit news organization, in collaboration with several Iowa newspapers, including The Gazette, revealed some disturbing figures: Disabled veterans overseen by the Des Moines regional office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs wait an average of 313 days on their benefits claims. In the Midwest, only offices in Chicago (458 days) and St. Louis (321) have longer averages. The national average is 277 days, but that’s certainly far from being satisfactory. And if an appeal is filed in Iowa, the wait averages more than 3 1/2 years.
In fairness, the VA offices are dealing with a surge of returning veterans from the Middle East conflicts. About 45 percent of them are seeking compensation for combat-related injuries, an all-time high. Some cases of disability are obvious, while some are much more difficult to verify. And the Iowa office’s accuracy rate of 92.5 percent tops the national average of 86.4 percent.
But surely, the surge of returning veterans is not a surprise after all these years in Iraq and Afghanistan with daily casualty reports filed. Surely, our veterans’ well-being upon their return should be a high priority. Surely, we could have been better prepared.
Are the military and the VA communicating effectively? Is the VA system adequately staffed? Why is a paper-based records system still being used? Are the right referrals being made promptly after a soldier returns?
While there are always a few who try to milk the system for more than they deserve, President Obama and Congress should scrutinize what’s happening. Why does it take so long to resolve claims? Why do so many soldiers who have given and risked so much have to wait so long to get an answer and the services they have rightly earned?
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