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By JAMES DAO
Published: July 12, 2009
He jumped at loud noises, had unpredictable flashes of anger and was constantly replaying battle scenes in his head. When Damian J. Todd, who served two tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps, described those symptoms to a psychiatrist in January 2008, the diagnosis was quick: he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Damian J. Todd, who served two Iraq tours, waited nearly 18 months before his claim was granted.
Less swift was the government’s response when Mr. Todd submitted, a month later, a disability claim that would entitle him to a monthly benefit check. Nearly 18 months went by before the Department of Veterans Affairs granted his claim late last month, Mr. Todd said.
Mr. Todd, 33, is part of a flood of veterans, young and old, seeking disability compensation from the department for psychological and physical injuries connected to their military service. The backlog of unprocessed claims for those disabilities is now over 400,000, up from 253,000 six years ago, the agency said.
The department says its average time for processing those claims, 162 days, is better than it has been in at least eight years. But it does not deny that it has a major problem, with some claims languishing for many months in the department’s overtaxed bureaucracy.
“There are some positive signs in terms of what we’re doing,” said Michael Walcoff, deputy under secretary for benefits in the Veterans Benefits Administration. “But we know that veterans deserve better.”
Mr. Walcoff said the department recently finished hiring 4,200 claims processors, but many will not be fully trained for months. The Government Accountability Office reported last year that the Veterans Affairs Department had about 13,000 people processing disability claims.
The larger significance of the backlog, veterans groups and officials said, is that resources for veterans are being stretched perilously thin by a confluence of factors beyond the influx of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Aging Vietnam veterans with new or worsening ailments are requesting care. Layoffs are driving unemployed veterans into the department’s sprawling health system for the first time. Congress has expanded certain benefits. And improved outreach efforts by the department have encouraged more veterans to seek compensation or care.