Charles NeSmith spent only three years in the Air Force more than a half century ago and never saw combat, but he believes his service may kill him yet.
In 1956 he was a part of Operation Redwing, in which the U.S. conducted 17 nuclear bomb tests in Bikini and Enewetak atolls in the South Pacific. NeSmith witnessed 11 of those explosions, as close as 3 miles away.
In 2006 he learned he had kidney cancer and is still taking chemotherapy. He showed a document from the Department of Veterans Affairs listing diseases that for atomic veterans should be presumed to be caused by radiation exposure. Urinary tract cancer is one of those.
In November 2011, he filed a claim with the VA for disability benefits, thinking he had a solid case. Now, almost two years later, he still hasnt gotten an answer to his claim.
His frustration reached a point that in a phone conversation with a VA representative, he suggested flipping a coin to decide the case. He just wanted to know one way or the other.
I had written them so many times it was unbelievable, said NeSmith, a Macon resident. Every time I called up there I sort of got the run around.
He was among 30 Middle Georgia veterans who responded to a Telegraph request for vets to talk about their experiences with disability claims with the VA. Each filled out an online survey, and nearly all were negative.
NeSmith wasnt the only one to suggest the VA was trying to stall him until he dies. The survey responses mirrored findings of a McClatchy Washington Bureau investigation that showed the VA continues to struggle to reduce its backlog of disability claims.
Veterans complained of lost records, miscommunications and cases that dragged on for years.
As of late June, there were nearly 750,000 claims pending, according to data from the Center for Investigative Reporting, www.cironline.org. And 67 percent of those are over 125 days, which is what the VA defines as its backlog.
NeSmith offered two explanations for the delays.
It could be that they are just so swamped that they are absolutely covered up with the new vets that are coming back from overseas, he said. That could be, or it could be that they just dont give a dadgum. Some of the letters Ive gotten from them almost indicate that.
VA says its working to address the problem
In an emailed response for this story, VA spokeswoman Meagan Lutz said this year the VA has implemented a new paperless, digital disability claims system in all 56 regional offices. She said the new system will help reach its goals to reduce the backlog.
VA has completed a record-breaking one million claims per year the last three fiscal years, Lutz said. But too many veterans have to wait too long to get the benefits they have earned and deserve. Thats unacceptable, and we are implementing a robust plan to fix the problem.
She said the backlog has grown due to the combination of a new influx of Iraq and Afghanistan vets, as well as other aging vets filing more claims. She also said that for the first time, the VA is recognizing claims related to Agent Orange, post traumatic stress disorder and Gulf War illness, which has led to more than a million new claims.
Under improved training, she said, the VA is processing 150 percent more claims per day.
Vets perplexed at time it takes to process claims
Many veterans who responded to The Telegraphs survey, through the Public Insight Network, told stories similar to NeSmiths.
William Hyslip, of Bonaire, served in the Navy and Air Force from 1947 to 1965 and is a veteran of Korea and Vietnam. He filed a claim due to back pain he suffers as the result of a fall while working on a C-130 in the Air Force.
The problem is that several years of his records have been lost, and he had to track down another airman injured in the same accident to try to prove his claim. He said his doctor has confirmed the pain is the result of the fall. He called the claims process frustrating and unacceptable.
They are very closed mouth, he said. They wont tell you anything.
In 1990 Chuck Norton filed his first disability claim with the VA without any assistance, and he learned the hard way how difficult that can be. A Vietnam combat veteran in the Air Force, Norton had cancer in his pelvis he believed was related to Agent Orange exposure. His claim was eventually approved, but it was a difficult process.
He had parts of his pelvis removed then, and due to continuing infections, in January this year his leg had to be amputated.
Since his initial filing, Norton, of Hawkinsville, has dedicated himself to learning all the details of the system, so he can help other veterans with their claims. He has even helped generals. He has extensive training and has helped thousands of veterans around the world while getting about 25 emails a day regarding the claims process. He doesnt charge anything but only helps honorably discharged vets and only does claims he considers valid.
While Norton sees plenty of fault with the VA, he said much of the blame also lies with the veterans themselves. Too many, he said, file a claim with no documentation to back it up. The claim then gets into the system and languishes while someone tries to track down the documentation or eventually it gets rejected.
A veteran should never file a claim on his own, he said. Hes never going to win his claim.
Veterans service organizations such as Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts have representatives who can help with claims, but Norton said he is the best person to contact. Veterans can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and put VA assistance in the subject line.
He says plenty of veterans try to file bogus claims. A common one is that as veterans age, they claim their hearing loss is the result of military duty. Unless they had a record of hearing loss while they were serving, Norton said, the VA is never going to approve that claim. He estimated about 30 percent of claims filed are fraudulent, which bogs down the system for those with legitimate claims.
If he were in charge of the VA, Norton said, the biggest change he would make is to have someone tell veterans what a claim may be lacking when it is filed. Many claims, he said, could be rejected immediately.
I would have the claims process at the lowest level, he said. Tell the veterans up front.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.