SWEETWATER, Tennessee — David Thomas has a left leg made of carbon fiber and steel, and the composed bearing of a man who has learned to wait.
The 42-year-old father of four waited six months for the Department of Veterans Affairs to declare him 70 percent disabled, based on the loss of his leg and damage to his vision during his service in Iraq as a sergeant with the National Guard’s 278th Regimental Combat Team. Now, 19 months after two anti-tank mines exploded beneath the humvee where he was manning the gunner’s turret, he still is waiting for the VA to make a disability judgment on his dozen other injuries.
“I don’t think they really expected all these injured people to come back (from Iraq),” Mr. Thomas said. “They’ve got paperwork for all these injured soldiers just stacked up.
The U.S. commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars called the VA’s claims processing system “broken” in testimony in March before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees.
Gary Kurpius said the VA has an “unmanageable” backlog of claims. One in eight is decided wrongly every year, he said.
“It is unacceptable, because each delay and every wrong decision have real human costs,” he said. “No disabled veteran should have to wait for benefits many of them need to care for themselves and their families.”
Mr. Thomas’ wife, April, calls the claims process “ridiculous.” Her husband, who spent a year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., now has to travel all over Tennessee — from Johnson City near the Virginia line to Murfreesboro outside Nashville — to have his injuries re-examined at VA medical facilities.
“They go through so much treatment and stuff at Walter Reed, and they have all his medical records — stacks of them — and then he comes back here and has to redo everything,” she said.
Mr. Thomas remembers how crowded the hallways were at Walter Reed, how hard it was to get simple things. The hospital didn’t provide him any clothes to wear during his first few months there — he finally got one shirt and one pair of pants from the Red Cross. The system is just overwhelmed, he said.
So he waits, his claim one of hundreds of thousands bottlenecked in the VA’s benefits system. Donald Samuels, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs, calls the national backlog of VA benefits claims “tremendous,” estimating it at about 600,000.
“You’ve got vets out there that have to wait six, seven, eight, nine months to get a decision on their claim,” he said. “Chances are they’re going to lose their house and everything else while they wait for their claim to be decided.”
The number of claims handled by the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs has increased by about 60 percent each year for the last several years because of a combination of aging veterans from earlier wars and younger veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Samuels said.
In fiscal 2006, the agency handled 84,000 claims. “This year it looks like it’s going to exceed that by quite a bit,” Mr. Samuels said.
There are about 540,000 veterans in Tennessee, he said.
In a study of the costs of caring for soldiers returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Harvard University public policy professor Linda Bilmes reported the VA had a national backlog of 69,000 pending initial disability claims in 2000. As of January 2007 there were 400,000, she reported.
There is no time limit on when a veteran must make a claim for most disability benefits, and the VA still is handling hundreds of thousands of new claims from Vietnam veterans, according to her study.
“The current claims process is unable to handle even the current volume and completely inadequate to cope with the high demand of returning war veterans,” Ms. Bilmes wrote.
In testimony in March before the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, the VA’s deputy undersecretary for benefits pointed to a striking growth in demand for benefits.
“The number of veterans filing initial disability compensation claims and claims for increased benefits has increased every year since 2000,” Ronald Aument said.
Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and increased outreach to veterans are major reasons for the growth in claims, he said. Also, disability claims have become considerably more complex, with the number of claims citing eight or more disabilities increasing from 21,814 in 2000 to 51,260 in 2006 — a 135 percent increase, he said.
“Under the very best of circumstances, it takes about four months to fully develop a claim,” he said.
The VA is hiring to try to move claims more efficiently, he said, bringing in more than 580 employees during 2006 and adding 400 more by the end of June. However, it takes two to three years of training to get those workers “fully productive,” he said.
THE LINE OF DUTY
Mr. Thomas came home from Iraq on leave in July 2005 to move his wife and youngest children — Maci, 10, and Megan, 6 — into a three-bedroom house set on two grassy acres in rural Sweetwater.
Horses graze the land next door, a couple of cats hang around the back deck, the occasional pickup truck rattles up a gravel driveway to the neighbor’s house at the top of the hill.
“It’s quiet here,” Mr. Thomas said.
But it would be more than a year before he lived there himself. After his leave, he’d been back in Iraq 20 days when two anti-tank mines buried in a dusty road blew apart his humvee and left him with a left leg that ends 3 inches above the knee. Two of his comrades were killed that day — Aug. 22, 2005.
Sgt. Victor Lieurance was 34 and from Seymour, Tenn. Spc. Joseph Hunt was 27 and from Sweetwater.
Mr. Thomas joined the National Guard in February 2003 knowing he would be sent to Iraq. On May 14, 2004, he deployed with the 3,700 members of the 278th for six months of training in Mississippi and California followed by a year of service in Iraq.
“That’s what I jumped in it for,” he said. “You’d see all these guys getting wounded and getting killed, and you just feel worthless.”
He’d been in the Army from 1987 to 1990, so he already knew something about military service. And he’s not sorry he went to Iraq. He loves his country; he did what he thought was right. He would do it again, he said.
The month before he was injured, he had signed up for six more years in the Guard.
“I didn’t see this coming,” he said quietly, resting his right ankle just above his mechanical left knee. “But I can’t complain. My two friends — they’re gone. I lost two good buddies, and they were good boys.”
His friend Joey Hunt had re-enlisted that month, too.
“He believed the same way I did,” Mr. Thomas said. “We believed in what we were doing.”
THE HOME FRONT
April Thomas, 35, was at work when she got the call from her husband’s commanding officer. She walked away from her construction job that day and would not see another paycheck for 17 months.
She lived for several months at Walter Reed, then spent several more months taking care of her family and helping her husband travel back and forth for visits home. While she lived at Walter Reed, the Army paid her $48 a day for meals and other expenses.
“I just went back to work in January,” she said. She drives an hour to Oak Ridge, Tenn., every day to work construction.
During his year at Walter Reed, Mr. Thomas waited six months for the Department of Veterans Affairs to make a determination on his disability claim. The grisly arithmetic of war assigns 60 percent disability for amputation above the knee. The VA gave Mr. Thomas another 30 percent disability because of the his loss of vision from the blast.
But his total disability came back at 70 percent, not the 90 percent he expected.
“Don’t ask me how they do their math,” he said.
He earned about $4,000 a month while he was in Iraq. The 70 percent disability ruling meant an income of about $1,600 a month. Eager to get home to Tennessee and his family, he took it.
“I just wanted to go to my house and live a normal life,” he said.
A lump-sum insurance settlement because of the loss of her husband’s limb carried the family for a while, along with his disability payments, Mrs. Thomas said. But she had to get back to work.
“I made 50 (percent) or 60 percent of our income,” she said. “You lose that much and the bills are based on that, there’s no way you can make it. We wouldn’t have been able to make the house payment.”
Her husband, who spent nine years making truck parts at a factory in Sweetwater, has not been able to find a job. He ferries his daughters to and from school. He catches up on TV shows he missed while he was deployed.
A friend is trying to help him get a job working dispatch for an area law enforcement agency. Mr. Thomas said he hopes the job comes through, though “I’d rather be patrolling.”
If he were declared 100 percent disabled, Mr. Thomas would get about $2,400 a month. He called the VA a couple of weeks ago to check on the status of his disability claim.
It will be 60 to 90 more days before he hears anything, they told him.
So David Thomas waits.