CBS Evening News, 6:30 PM
SCOTT PELLEY: Finally tonight, America of course owes a great debt to the men and women who have sacrificed so much in more than a decade of war. But it turns out many are forced to wait months, even years, to get disability benefits. David Martin has been investigating whatâ€™s behind the delay.
DAVID MARTIN: Itâ€™s Iraq 2003 and a tragedy is about to happen. When that Marine pulled the trigger on that rocket-propelled grenade launcher, it blew up. After the smoke cleared, two Marines lay dead and Aaron Helstrom was riddled with shrapnel.
AARON HELSTROM [War Veteran]: Iâ€™ve got a fused spine that's causing me pain every day.
MARTIN: He returned to active duty, served a tour in Afghanistan and went on to become a master sergeant. Several months before he finally retired, Helstrom submitted this disability claim to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the VA. It lists a total of 65 conditions ranging from his shrapnel wounds to PTSD, which would qualify him for $2,800 a month in disability pay.
HELSTROM: They say at the time of your retirement or when you get out, you will start receiving your compensation claim. Thatâ€™s not the case now.
MARTIN: Helstrom retired on December 1st, 2011. Seven months later, all he had gotten from the VA was a monthly form letter.
HELSTROM: Weâ€™re still processing your application for compensation.
MARTIN: That makes Helstrom one of 500,000 veterans whose claims are caught in the increasing VA backlog.
ALLISON HICKEY [VA Director for Benefits]: Itâ€™s actually 565,000, way too many.
MARTIN: Allison Hickey, the VAâ€™s director of benefits, says the system has been swamped by 250,000 new claims from a change in regulations that allowed more Vietnam veterans to file disability claims from exposure to the pesticide Agent Orange. On top of that, Hickey says, veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, whose lives were saved by advances in battlefield medicine, are now filing claims at a record rate.
HICKEY: Forty-five percent of them are filing a claim. That is unprecedented in terms of the number of veterans that will file a claim with us.
MARTIN: All flooding into a bureaucracy that lags behind other agencies like the IRS in switching from paper to electronic files.
HICKEY: We have 4.4 million active records, paper records across our 56 regional offices today. And these paper files are not one or two pages big. They are reams and reams and reams of paper.
MARTIN: This is one of those paper files, one veteranâ€™s claim being handled by the VA office in Salt Lake City. Theyâ€™re not all this big, but until now, they all had to be processed by hand.
Keaton Stamper spends her days gathering the evidence needed to support a veteranâ€™s claim.
Youâ€™re surrounded by paper.
KEATON STAMPER [Veterans Administration Employee]: I am. I am. This is my daily life, the paper files.
MARTIN: David Walser, himself a disabled veteran, also handles claims for the VA. He knows firsthand those files represent peopleâ€™s lives.
DAVID WALSER [Veterans Administration Employee]: I put in my claim for disability and went through the systems and I went through this just like all the other veterans.
MARTIN: That brace on his wrist is not a war wound. Itâ€™s from handling all the paper. The VA plans to switch from paper to electronic files by the end of 2015. Melissa Colin is thrilled at how much easier that should make her job.
MELISSA COLIN [Veterans Administration Employee]: We have our two screens, I can move it over and I can be looking at the application on this screen and I can be working on this screen.
MARTIN: It wonâ€™t come in time to help Aaron Helstrom, but talking to CBS News did. The day after we contacted the VA about his case, he got a call from them.
HELSTROM: Today I have an appointment at 12:30 p.m., at 1:15 p.m., at 2:00 p.m., at 2:45 p.m. and then at 3:30 p.m., back to back to back to back appointments.
MARTIN: He set off for those appointments still lugging all his paperwork. If the VA keeps to the new schedule, Helstromâ€™s claim should be settled by Labor Day. And the VA will have one less backlogged case.
David Martin, CBS News, Manassas, Virginia.