President-elect Barack Obama should make it easier for disabled veterans to get their benefits.
The VA routinely delays disability claims by wounded soldiers for
months and years, often shunting them into poverty and homelessness.
On Jan. 14, retired General Eric Shinseki, Barack Obama's pick for
Veterans Affairs Secretary, will testify before the Senate. At the
confirmation hearing, senators should press him to change this policy.
Former Lance Corporal Bob O'Daniel's story is far too common. The
proud Navajo has been fighting for more than 17 years to receive the
veteran's benefits he earned.
During the 1991 Gulf War, O'Daniel worked on board the USS Nassau,
which was stationed in the Persian Gulf. Even before he came home,
O'Daniel knew something wasn't right. He was always tired, and he
couldn't see or sleep properly. He experienced sexual dysfunction and
"just a lot of things that a young man shouldn't have," he told me.
O'Daniel suffers from Gulf War Syndrome. This comes with a range of
symptoms including - but not limited to -- rashes, stomach distress,
brain legions, fatigue, severely swollen muscles and memory loss.
"Memories are what all people cherish," he said. "Good times, bad times -- whatever. But I was missing a lot of those things."
Pentagon doctors now believe Gulf War Syndrome affects more than
175,000 veterans of the 1991 conflict. A blue-ribbon government report
released in November said the condition is most likely due to exposure
to toxic pesticides and pills that were given to soldiers to protect
them against nerve gas.
But even though O'Daniel's VA doctors tell him he has the syndrome,
bureaucrats at the Department of Veterans Affairs refuse to grant him
the benefits he earned in combat. O'Daniel lives in his wife's parents'
home in North Carolina, subsisting off their charity with his wife and
two children while they wait for the VA to begin paying his claim.
Across the country, more than 600,000 wounded veterans find
themselves in the same position, twisting in the wind as they wait for
the government to keep its promise to care for them.
Many descend into poverty during the months and years of waiting.
Others are simply unable to outlast the bureaucracy. In the six
months leading up to March 31 of last year, 1,500 veterans died while
they waited for the VA's response.
There is a better way to handle military disability claims: Trust the vets.
In her exhaustive study of the long-term costs of the wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan, Linda Bilmes, who teaches management, budgeting and
public finance at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, notes that
almost all veterans tell the truth in their disability claims, with the
VA ultimately approving nearly 90 percent of them. Given that reality,
Bilmes suggests scrapping the lengthy process described above and
replacing it with "something closer to the way the IRS deals with tax
returns." Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand all use similar
systems to compensate their injured veterans.
Obama and Shinseki should streamline the benefits process. Our disabled vets have waited too long already.