Red tape trauma: 851,000 war veterans await benefits
By GREGG ZOROYA | USA Today | Published: June 12, 2013
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Michael "Mickey" Flynn D'heron waits for the VA on his backyard patio.
Between his small brick home and the sound wall that barely cuts traffic noise on busy Memorial Parkway, he bides his time, drinking Miller Light and smoking Pall Malls. He's waiting for the Department of Veterans Affairs to compensate him for the demons he brought home from Iraq.
"I'll tell you the truth. I never believed in mental illness," says D'heron, a city firefighter and former Army reservist. "Never. I always thought that you suck it up; deal with it. And then this."
D'heron, 32, served from 2008 to 2009 as a military police officer in two of Iraq's most violent cities during heavy combat after a surge of 20,000 American troops into the country in 2007. Now he spends nights outside on his patio, wrapped in a heavy blanket, hunkered down in an office swivel chair, isolated from his wife, Jennifer, his newborn son, Liam, and a stepdaughter, Kayla, 7, who puzzles over dad's "Army sickness."
"It's like he's not even part of the family most of the time," Jennifer says.
He filed his disability claim March 7, 2012. President Obama and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki say veterans should wait no more than 125 days for a resolution. As of Wednesday, D'heron will have waited 463 days.
He's among 851,000 veterans awaiting answers on compensation claims for wounds, illnesses or injuries incurred during their service. Two out of three have been waiting more than 125 days for an answer.
Post-traumatic stress disorder left D'heron with panic attacks so severe he can no longer serve as a New Brunswick city firefighter, his dream job since he was 7 and saw his firefighter father charge into a burning building on Christmas Day. He took the job in 2006, two years after the elder D'heron — by then deputy chief in New Brunswick — died in a fire rescue attempt. City fathers wept at Mickey's swearing-in, celebrating a family legacy enduring.
That legacy is over. D'heron needs VA compensation for the combat-related PTSD that effectively robbed him of his firefighting job.
A flood of claims
Groups such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America call these delays a national disgrace, particularly in a time of war.
Two-thirds of the U.S. Senate and a third of House members have signed letters to Obama demanding improvements. Many are frustrated because they granted every budget increase the VA requested, boosting it more than 40% since Obama took office. They've even offered to spend more.
On The Daily Show, comedian Jon Stewart regularly lampoons the VA over the delays. Last month, he riffed on "enthusiasm, urgency and clarity of vision" that got Obama re-elected and mocked an Obama 2008 slogan as motivation for fixing the backlog: "Yes we ... can."
The VA under Obama said it inherited a system unable to process a new wave of disability claims and is working to reform it. Shinseki says he expected an increase when he made the claims process more accessible to Vietnam veterans and those with PTSD, but he did not anticipate how much would flow from those actions.
The mountain of claims continued to grow even after the VA launched an overhaul last year designed to automate and fast-track cases and improve the skills of those who handle them. The backlog of cases taking longer than 125 days tripled in size after Obama took office, and the number of cases such as D'heron's dragging on longer than a year mushroomed from 13,000 in 2009 to 245,000 in December 2012.
In March, the VA's compensation chief, Allison Hickey, fired off an e-mail to staff begging for ideas: "Bring together in very rapid fashion a group of brilliant thinkers and experienced thinkers ... to put everything on the table. ... I need to do this very quickly."
In short order, the VA offered to pay some veterans even before their claims were evaluated, mandated worker overtime and began clearing the oldest cases first.
One case had lain dormant for 20 years — a Navy veteran the VA declined to identify for privacy reasons and who sought compensation in 1993. It wasn't rediscovered until the veteran filed a new claim in February, the VA says. The claim was resolved last week in favor of the veteran, and disability payments will begin, the VA says.
Today, there are glimmers of hope. The number of pending claims has fallen by 44,000 since a peak in late March and those taking more than 125 days by about 64,000, VA data show. Diana Rubens, a deputy undersecretary overseeing claims offices, predicts the backlog will keep shrinking.
"It's still a mess, and too many vets are waiting," says Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, which has pushed hard for reducing the backlog since 2007. "Hopefully, we've turned a corner."
Few are persuaded, however, that the president can keep his promise of ending the backlog by 2015.
The nation's largest veterans group, the 2.4 million-member American Legion, officially remains hopeful that the VA will succeed. But Verna Jones, the Legion's claims expert, laughed at the prospect: "At this point, we would consider a substantial decrease a great achievement."
A harrowing deployment
D'heron joined the Army Reserve in March 2003, the month the United States invaded Iraq. Five years later, he was called to active duty and sent to Fallujah and later to Mosul for a 10-month deployment that ended in February 2009.
His strongest memory: the unremitting sense of peril working with Iraqi police — daily trips outside the wire, foot patrols in markets where everyone seemed suspicious, and always the unknowable. "Had a bunch of bad days over there," he says.
The Iraqi police technically were the Americans' trainees. But there was constant mistrust and, on one occasion, a barrel-to-barrel confrontation that nearly ended badly until U.S. attack helicopters and Marine ground troops were summoned, D'heron says.
His first marriage fell apart a year after he came home, his wife certain that war had changed him. It was a wake-up call for D'heron to begin counseling.
The VA diagnosed him with combat-induced PTSD, a mental disorder in which traumatic events are emotionally relived with all the anxiety and sensory arousal — racing heartbeat and respiration — that goes with them.
After he and Jennifer married in 2011, the nightmares continued. Sometimes he'd wake up screaming, pin her to the bed and yell commands as though they were under fire — "stay down, stay down, contact left, contact right."
On March 7, 2012, he sought compensation from the VA for his PTSD, injuries to his knee and back and persistent ringing in the ears — all from his time in combat.
Then he waited.
When Jennifer became pregnant with Liam last year, he started sleeping on the patio to ensure he couldn't hurt her in his sleep.
Despite ongoing therapy with a VA psychologist, D'heron's symptoms worsened.
He suffered his first severe panic attack during a three-alarm fire in a condominium complex last July. An oxygen-starved fire on the third floor belched black smoke and flames when he and four other firefighters popped the door armed with fire hoses.
Soon he could feel himself fighting to breathe, barely able to move, heart racing.
He fought to keep anyone from noticing.
A worse attack followed in September at a street festival he attended in New Brunswick with his family where the crowded streets triggered an emotional response just like he'd had in the markets in Iraq. It marked the end of his firefighting career. D'heron went on an extended leave that will end with his medical retirement from the city July 1. His pension: 40% of his current income.
His VA therapist linked the panic attacks to his combat-induced PTSD.
"Honestly, I don't think I'll ever not be in a combat zone in my mind," D'heron says.
He was driving every week to a VA hospital for therapy, but his growing discomfort with confined spaces makes the 45-minute car trip unbearable. He's missed recent appointments.
Shortly before Mother's Day, he nearly overdosed on Trazadone sleeping pills, saying he just wanted desperately to sleep. Jennifer says he was trying to kill himself.
D'heron spent a week in the psychiatric ward of another VA hospital after that. The VA offers 45-day inpatient treatment for him as a next step.
The department estimates 22 veterans commit suicide each day.
In quieter moments, Mickey admits self-destructive thoughts.
"It's gotten to the point where my wife's ready to leave me, and I'm not going to have anything pretty soon," he says.
A bungled response
D'heron's compensation case was mishandled from the very start, the VA admits.
The department provided details after Mickey consented to release his records for a USA TODAY inquiry.
The VA simply failed to do anything with the claim after it was filed March 7, 2012 — a human error, says Michael Blazis, director of a benefits office in Newark, N.J.
The case sat idle for 10 months until Mickey complained. After that, the VA could not get necessary medical records from the Defense Department. More delays followed.
Those records were finally acquired in the past few weeks. After a final medical examination, Blazis says, D'heron's claim can be processed within 10 days. "If we get the exam, we'll expedite it immediately," Blazis says.
That final resolution has been nearly too long in the making.
When D'heron first filed his compensation case early last year, his PTSD was severe, but he could function. He was still a firefighter.
The illness has become so bad that when the day of his medical exam arrived, Mickey spent all morning throwing up. He was petrified by the prospect of spending an hour on the highway to get to the appointment. He didn't go.
"I can't deal with it," he says. "I can't be on the road that long." The VA is trying to arrange to have a doctor meet Mikey at his home, Jennifer says.
Watching Mickey's struggle, Jennifer D'heron says she worries for their marriage and children. Tears well up for Jennifer when Mickey says he thinks she will leave him "any day now."
"He was in the Army, a firefighter," says Jennifer, who works as a nurse at nearby Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. "I was proud of him for everything he did (in Iraq) but felt bad that he suffered the consequences of it."
"The VA is kind of our only hope," she adds. "But it's a slow, slow process."
Meghan Hoyer contributed to this report.