January 7, 2008
Note: The following story is a verbatim transcript of an Investigators story that aired on Monday, Jan. 7, 2008, on KPRC Local 2 at 10 p.m.
Local 2 Investigates looks into veterans waiting for needed help. Last year, we exposed the problem — a massive backlog of wounded veterans waiting for assistance from the one agency supposed to help them as they try to move on.
Tonight, we’ve learned the problem has gotten worse, and we have the numbers to show it.
Investigative reporter Amy Davis uncovers why more veterans are forced to face a new sacrifice here at home.
Army private Patrick Feges can’t forget the mortar blast in Iraq. His severe injuries won’t let him. The soldier from Sugar Land barely survived the attack, but was treated like a hero during his recovery.
President George W. Bush made a bedside visit in Washington, D.C, and Gov. Rick Perry awarded him the Purple Heart during a ceremony back in Texas.
Feges says the thanks seemed to stop there, especially when it came to the benefits he earned from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I guess I was sort of ticked off,” Feges told us in February 2007. “I lost a lot of faith in the VA system.”
Last year, Local 2 Investigates exposed that Feges was forced to wait more than 18 months to get the any of VA disability benefits he earned with his service and sacrifice.
“It wasn’t fair to see him struggle after what he went through,” said Mary Jowell, Feges’ mother.
Almost a year later, we’ve discovered more veterans are waiting even longer to get those benefits. A new VA report shows the average veteran’s wait for disability benefits is around six months — 183 days.
It is the third year in a row the wait time has increased.
In Houston, we discovered veterans are waiting even longer. On average, a veteran using the VA Houston Regional Office is waiting almost seven months — 209 days — to receive earned benefits.
At the end of September, 19,200 Houston-area veterans were still waiting for their benefits.
“Why hasn’t anyone done anything more?” said Allen Grundy, program coordinator at the Veterans’ Services Office at the University of Houston. “Maybe they’re doing the best they can, but whatever it is, we know it needs to be fixed.”
The new numbers are no surprise to Grundy. He sees many veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan who are forced to wait for their benefits.
“Whether they enough veterans staff to fix the situation, I don’t know,” said Grundy. “Whether they don’t have enough financial backing, I don’t know. But we do know there is a problem.”
The problem is not just with the overflow of veterans coming back from the Middle East. Many veterans from wars long ago — Vietnam, Korea, even World War II — are now waiting longer to get changes to their disability benefits. The numbers are adding up.
“Absolutely, it should be working better than what it is,” said Buddy Grantham, director of the Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs. “Soldiers deserve better than that.”
Grantham says his office is hearing more complaints from those older veterans than any other group.
After our initial investigation last year, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison sent a management team to Houston’s VA Regional Office to help fix the backlog of veterans waiting.
We talked with her office about these new numbers. Hutchison calls the situation “completely unacceptable.”
Houston’s VA office says it hired 38 new employees last year, but says it takes up to two years to get them fully trained to process benefits.