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Wisconsin Vets Caught Up in Huge VA Claims Backlog

Erin Toner

One Milwaukee man waited more than a year after filing a disability claim to begin receiving compensation for injuries sustained in Iraq.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is under growing scrutiny following reports that dozens of vets died while waiting for care at the VA hospital in Phoenix. The facility is accused of creating a secret patient list in order to cover up long wait times for appointments. Last week, a U.S. House committee voted to subpoena VA Secretary Eric Shinseki for an inquiry.

Criticism over long wait times for health care and disability compensation exploded in recent years as thousands of vets returned from wars in the Middle East.

Milwaukeean Dale Maupin, a former Marine, got caught up in the claims backlog.

He figured the same kind of mental toughness that helped him survive the war in Iraq, would get him through the transition to life back at home. After all, he’d been conditioned to believe he was invincible.

“The few, the proud, you know, I mean that’s something that’s engrained in our brain the second we get off the bus,” Maupin says.

But that mantra was no match for the emptiness and sadness that Maupin found framing his post-military life.

“Unfortunately, a lot of it stems from just not being able to find yourself anymore, not having that pride of belonging, not having that strength that you had that was behind you for so many years," he says. "And you start to feel alone and you start to drown your sorrows and all these feelings and emotions deep inside a bottle or through a needle."

Maupin says he also agonized over the deaths of two fellow marines while serving in Iraq in 2008 - Richard Nelson of Kenosha and Dean Opicka of Waukesha. They all belonged to Milwaukee-based Fox Company. Maupin says the two were beautiful human beings, and the explosion and fire that took their lives haunts him.

“I hate to say something so vivid, but if I’m at a cookout and somebody’s burning the food, it brings back these memories, it brings back those feelings," Maupin says. "The smells, the chill. It’s a desert, but you still feel the chill that was creeping down your spine, that entire, time. You’re just…you’re helpless."

Maupin says in the years leaving Iraq, he was an out-of-work junkie. The 27-year-old says he had become addicted to painkillers in the service, and when he got out, started injecting heroin. He remembers the day he checked himself in to the Milwaukee VA hospital.

“The second I walked in there, I told the nurse, I remember I said, I’m a little embarrassed but I’m a drug addict and I don’ t want to be, was my exact words," Maupin says. "And she tried to assure me as well as she could, and was like, we’re gonna take care of you, we’re not gonna leave you behind. And those were words that really strike a cord with you. I mean what’s the philosophy of every military member? Never leave a man or woman behind."

The VA gave Maupin medical care right away. But he got stuck when he sought compensation for his military disabilities – PTSD and back pain. The VA took more than year to process his claim.

Maupin says fortunately, he had a supportive family and by that time, a job, so waiting for the money wasn’t a huge problem. But he says many other veterans aren’t as lucky, and for them, the claims backlog at the VA is unacceptable.

“You know when you have these people in these devastating situations that need the money to keep a roof over their head so child protective service doesn’t get involved and try to take their children because they can’t pay the rent and the food, that’s a little disconcerting, knowing that the funds are needed so heavily,” he says.

“We’re very concerned,” says Wisconsin Congresswoman Gwen Moore. “I’m very hard pressed to walk out of my door anywhere in my district and not come upon some disgruntled veteran who says that it’s been two years since he has gotten any kind of word about his claim.”

As thousands of veterans have returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of disability claims has inundated the Department of Veterans Affairs. The backlog has gotten even worse recently as Vietnam vets have begun filing claims for additional medical conditions related to Agent Orange exposure, such as Type 2 Diabetes.

Beth McCoy works for the VA . She says it has a stack of 324,000 claims that have been pending for more four months, but things are improving.

“Overall, the wait times have come down significantly across the system. And in 2015, we will hit the goal of no claim pending more than 125 days,” McCoy says.

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