New Veterans’ Claims Are Stressing the VA System

Kansas City Star

WASHINGTON | More than a quarter of the discharged veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns have filed injury claims with the government, according to an internal Department of Veterans Affairs report.

Between 2001 and the end of 2006, about 690,000 had been deployed to those fronts in the war on terror and have since left active service.

According to the internal report obtained by The Kansas City Star, both the number of veterans and the number who file disability claims with the VA have gone up about 50 percent in just the last year.

“It’s ominous that the claims activity continues to surge,” said Paul Sullivan, veterans’ advocate and former VA project manager.

Those statistics indicate more pressure on the already stressed VA system that has underestimated the number of post-traumatic stress disorder cases and the number of former military at its community walk-in clinics. “The system is stretched to the breaking point,” said Rep. Bob Filner of California, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

The numbers will climb, and not just because the number of troops has been escalating in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Some wait years to file injury claims, while some issues, such as post-traumatic stress, can take years to surface.

Steve Smithson, deputy director for claims at the American Legion, said the numbers “seem like a lot, but there may be a lot more. It’s a cost of war that we don’t always figure into the budget and we don’t always realize. This is also a cost, taking care of the wounded, and we’re going to be seeing more of this as the war continues.”

Amid the focus on Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington — which is not in the VA system — VA Secretary James Nicholson Monday ordered his department’s clinics to provide details about their physical condition by next week.

Nicholson has been under pressure to reduce claims backlogs and improve coordination at the VA’s vast network of 1,400 hospitals and clinics, which provide supplemental care and rehabilitation to 5.8 million veterans.

The VA has granted 132,000 of the 180,000 benefit claims filed since the invasion of Afghanistan, according to the report. The balance includes claims that have either been denied or are pending.

VA spokesman Jim Benson said that every injury claim by an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran might not be a result of their deployment. The injury could have occurred either before or after they served overseas, he said. The VA awards compensation for health problems when veterans can prove their injuries were related to their military service.

To reach David Goldstein, call (202) 383-6105, or send e-mail to

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