Vietnam combat veteran Robert Shave had heart problems associated with being exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange used during that war.
The 66-year-old Schenectady resident applied for a disability benefit when the Department of Veterans Affairs added this to the list of aliments covered by Agent Orange impacts two years ago.
“I got mine [approved] in 11⁄2 years, which is fast,” Shave said, adding many veterans don’t get a final word on their disability claims for three, four, or sometimes five years after applying.
“There’s been a major backup for many years,” Shave said.
Shave is the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars for Schenectady-Schoharie Counties, so he hears complaints from his fellow veterans about the long wait to get benefits promised them. The typical scenario is a veteran going to his county veterans service officer and filling out a disability claim.
“That claim has to go through New York,” Shave said about the Department of Veterans Affairs office in New York City. The New York office says the veteran needs a physical, so he is sent to the local VA hospital for the physical. The waiting continues. Sometimes records are misplaced or lost.
“It’s a long process,” Shave said.
The federal government admits the backlog has existed for years. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, in his report to the president and Congress on Nov. 15, said the Department of Veterans Affairs processed more than 1 million claims for the third year in a row.
Shinseki said there is a “concerted effort” in his department to eliminate the claims processing backlog by 2015.
Vietnam veterans are now the largest segment seeking benefits. The Vietnam War era covers 1964 through 1975. However, veterans who served in Vietnam between 1961 and 1964 are also considered eligible for wartime claims and pensions.
Andrew Davis, director of the Saratoga County Veterans Service Agency, said Vietnam veterans applying for disability benefits, especially those related to Agent Orange, are a large part of his office’s work. He said the regional office in New York City is at a bottleneck.
“We have had claims that have sat in New York for over two years,” Davis said, with the average waiting period for a claim to be processed there 379 days.
He said the department’s statement that it will have the backlog issue solved by 2015 is not realistic.
Davis, a U.S. Army Ranger veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who has been involved in veterans’ services for seven years, said the backlog hole is deep “and it’s growing deeper.”
He said every secretary of Veterans Affairs, like Shinseki, tries to improve the system and reduce backlogs.
“The problems are a lot lower in the food chain,” Davis said.
He said regional managers — the department has regional offices in New York City and Buffalo — have to deal with constant change.
“The VA just adopted technology that has been used in the private sector for many years,” Davis said. but is now making available computerized applications that are confusing to veterans.
“The veterans don’t know what forms and evidence that they need,” Davis said about the online applications.
Each county has a veterans service agency, and the state Division of Veterans Affairs has counselors assigned to each county. These offices specialize in handling disability and pension applications. The services are free.
Ned Foote, a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam who lost his leg in combat in the late 1960s, said more and more Vietnam veterans are filing disability claims as this segment of the population grows older.
Foote, a Queensbury resident who is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, New York State Council No. 2, said it is very difficult for Vietnam veterans to get compensated for post-traumatic stress disorder when making applications 40 years after their combat experience.
He said Vietnam veterans had pushed their post-traumatic stress issues into the background during their younger years.
“These people start to retire, they have time to think, they start to remember what happened 40 years ago,” Foote said.
He said the Vietnam Veterans of America support young veterans coming back from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom are also reluctant to seek help for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Foote said there are two aspects to veterans’ benefits. One is the veterans’ hospitals, which have improved their service greatly in recent years, including the Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany. The other aspect is the benefits side.
“The hospital has gotten better. I have no complaints. They have turned around 100 percent,” Foote said.
But the delay in the processing and awarding of benefits continues to grow worse.
“Because of the overload, its about quantity, not quality,” Foote said.
It seems like some VA benefits staff try to deny benefits rather than approve them, though, he said.
“The majority are good people. They try to do the best they can,” he said.
Foote said if a veteran does apply for a disability claim, the VA now sends them a letter saying they have the paperwork and are working on it. These letters are sent out every three or four months, sometimes for years.
The Vietnam Veterans of America try to notify their members about changes in such disability coverage as Agent Orange, including what types of illnesses are covered. But the increased claims in this area — diabetes and heart disease, as well as certain types of cancer — have “overloaded an already overloaded system.”
Foote had a neighbor who served in Vietnam and had a heart attack. He urged this neighbor to file a claim under the Agent Orange coverage. For some reason it only took his neighbor six months to hear that his claim had been approved and the veteran is now getting a monthly check based on 30 percent disability.
Foote receives a 100 percent disability payment because of the loss of his leg during combat. This amounts to $2,800 check monthly.
Foote agreed with Davis and Shave that he didn’t think the government can resolve the deep backlog in claims processing by 2015.
Any veteran who served during a period of wartime, whether or not they served in a combat zone, is eligible for a pension. These claims are processed at a Department of Veterans Affairs office in Philadelphia.
Davis said that pension, which covers a veteran’s spouse, as well, is income based. He said it generally comes into play when the veteran or his spouse is in an assisted living facility or requires home visits for nursing care.
“If they are not in assisted living, it’s hard to meet the [financial] threshold,” Davis said.
In Saratoga County alone, the county Veterans Service Agency has 7,000 active clients out of 16,000 veterans in the county. The agency office is at 152 W. High St. in Ballston Spa.
The state Division of Veterans Affairs, which has a Saratoga County counseling location in Room 101 of Empire State College on Union Avenue in Saratoga Springs, has another 5,000 clients. Davis said his office has a good working relationship with the state veterans office.
Services available in other counties include:
u In Schenectady County, both the county Veterans Service Agency and the state Division of Veterans Affairs have their offices at 797 Broadway in Schenectady.
u In Montgomery County, the Veterans Service Agency is located in the County Annex Building at 20 Park Street in Fonda.
u In Albany County, the county Veterans Service Agency is located at 112 State Street in Albany and the state Division of Veterans Affairs office is at the Veterans Center, 17 Computer Drive West in Albany.