Like most politicians trolling for votes, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney rarely miss an opportunity to praise America’s veterans, particularly the troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Here’s Romney on May 2: “We are united as one nation in our gratitude to our country’s heroes.” And Obama on Memorial Day: “As long as I’m president, we will make sure you and your loved ones will receive the benefits you’ve earned and the respect you deserve. America will be there for you.”
That’s not the way it’s worked for Hector Esparza. A former Army sergeant, Esparza was a gunner escorting convoys to Baghdad during the bloodiest days of the Iraq war. In 2004 he suffered a brain injury when a rocket blew up his Humvee. Now home in Killeen, Tex., he’s unable to work due to debilitating headaches and post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs designated him only 60 percent disabled, which means he and his wife and 6-year-old daughter live on $1,200 a month from the VA. Since 2009, Esparza has been trying to qualify for full disability. In April he received a letter from the agency: With so many claims piling up, it could take another six months before anyone reviews his case. “I was pretty confident that I was going to be taken care of and my family was going to be taken care of,” he says. “I feel lied to and disappointed because I don’t see that happening.”
Esparza is one of hundreds of thousands of former soldiers suffering the effects of a VA overwhelmed by a decade of fighting overseas. With the Iraq war finished and troops returning from Afghanistan, record numbers of wounded former service members are turning to the federal government for disability pay. Over the past four years the number of disability cases filed with the VA jumped 48 percent, to 1.3 million in 2011.
The agency expects the demand from wounded vets to rise as more leave the military. When Obama took office in 2009, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki set a goal of resolving disability claims within 125 days, with 98 percent accuracy. Since then the backlog has only grown, and errors have gone up. Currently about 905,000 claims are awaiting action. According to government figures released in May, 65 percent took longer than four months to resolve—often many months or years longer. “The government is just not fulfilling their promises,” says David Autry of Disabled American Veterans, an advocacy group that helps former service members tangle with the VA.
Allison Hickey, the department’s under secretary for benefits, says the agency is trying to speed up its work. It’s testing computer record keeping at 16 of its 56 regional offices—incredibly, the VA still relies mostly on paper files—and the administration has asked Congress for $128 million more to extend the system to the rest of the country next year. The agency has also hired more workers in the office that reviews claims: There are now 14,320, up some 4,000 from 2008, the VA says.
Despite its rapid growth, the agency still can’t keep up. In May the department’s inspector general issued a report scolding its poor management. At offices in San Diego, Oakland, and Los Angeles, as many as 60 percent of disability claims were processed incorrectly. One had been awaiting action for more than eight years. On May 17, California’s congressional delegation wrote to Shinseki asking him to take “immediate and concrete” steps to cut down on the errors and wait times.
It’s not clear exactly what that would mean. The VA has more money and more employees than ever. What’s lacking is political pressure to hold it accountable. Romney has criticized Obama’s military policy but has largely been quiet about the shabby treatment many vets receive when they come home—and hasn’t said what, if anything, he’d do to fix it. In his three and a half years in office, Obama has increased the VA’s budget but hasn’t made improving the agency’s dismal performance a priority, except in campaign speeches. “You know, standing up for our veterans, this is not a Democratic responsibility, it’s not a Republican responsibility; it’s an American responsibility,” he told a crowd in Minnesota on June 1. “It’s an obligation of every citizen who enjoys the freedom that these heroes defended.”
Back in Texas, Hector Esparza and his family wait for Washington to live up to that sentiment. “I feel like they’re better off without me, like I’m holding them back,” he says. “And even though my wife says she’s happy, I know that somebody else could take better care of her financially than I could. I don’t want another family going through what I went through.”