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In the service

  • Nave, Zachary J.
    Air Force Airman Zachary J. Nave graduated from basic military training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, San Antonio, Texas.
  • Jasso, Moniq
    Army Pvt. Moniq Jasso has graduated from basic combat training at Fort Jackson, Columbia, S.C.
  • Meyer, Tyler D.
Bloomberg News
Dawn Halfaker of Arlington, Va., holding a prosthetic in a 2007 HBO photo, lost an arm in Iraq in 2004. But she said a VA doctor found no proof in his paperwork.

Veterans still in fight – with VA

Backlogs and bottlenecks abound

– Army Sgt. Jeremy Barnhart says anyone wanting to know what it’s like to deal with the Department of Veterans Affairs can get a clue from the FedEx packages that land on the front porch of his San Antonio home.

They tell him when to show up for mental health assessments that help determine his benefits eligibility. If the time conflicts with his college classes – which are a VA benefit helping him prepare for a new career – he can’t change the appointment directly by phone, he said. He can only call to say it doesn’t work, and wait for another package giving him a new appointment time.

Separately, he’s been trying without success to see a VA neurologist for review of a brain injury incurred in a grenade attack in Iraq, he said. These efforts have been going on since he left the military, in April 2011.

“How many circles do I have to run in to get the care that I need?” said Barnhart, 39, who served as a medic and is studying to become a physician’s assistant. “It’s a powerless feeling to be in a system like this.”

President Obama has pledged to serve veterans “as well as they’ve served us.” Yet to veterans like Barnhart, the VA’s bureaucracy can bring more agony than reward.

With as many as 1 million troops due to become veterans in the next five years, on top of the 22.3 million already in the system, the agency is staggering under backlogs in disability compensation claims, bottlenecks in mental health care and criticism over a general lack of accountability.

“The system is completely overwhelmed,” said Craig Bryan, a clinical psychologist and associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah. “We did not prepare the VA system for what many of us would argue is the natural consequence of combat and protracted warfare, and we’re trying to play catch-up.”

Dawn Halfaker, an Army captain who lost an arm in 2004 during an attack in Iraq, said the VA has a “culture problem,” with some employees too distant from veterans’ struggles and too dependent on paperwork and processes.

Halfaker, 33, recalled meeting with a clinician at a VA medical center in Washington as part of the process to determine the compensation she would receive for her disabilities.

He read from a sheet that noted she had suffered burns, lung damage, broken ribs and other injuries.

She reminded him she was also missing her right arm.

“He said, ‘Well, I don’t have that down here,’ ” said Halfaker, who owns a consulting business in Arlington, Va. “I’m very clearly an amputee, but it has become such a bureaucratic system that this individual didn’t really have the wherewithal to realize what was going on in front of him.

“Then he contested whether I’d ever been in combat because I was a woman,” said Halfaker, president of the board of directors for the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit in Jacksonville, Fla.

Josh Taylor, an agency spokesman, declined to arrange an interview with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki or Deputy Secretary Scott Gould, to comment on this story.

VA statistics show an agency falling further behind even with increased and staff.

The VA’s budget has more than doubled to $125.3 billion in the past decade, while its full-time staff has risen 43 percent to 319,592 since 2002.

Obama has requested about $140 billion for the agency in fiscal 2013, which would make the VA one of the few big winners in an austere budget environment.

And yet, about 896,000 disability compensation and pension claims were pending as of last week, almost double the cases on Oct. 31, 2009. Two-thirds have been in the system for more than 125 days, the agency’s target processing time.

Fewer than half of veterans receive full mental health evaluations within two weeks of contacting the agency for care, according to an April review by the department’s inspector general’s office.

For the remainder, it takes an average of about 50 days to get an exam.

U.S. lawmakers have warned the VA to ensure its funding increases are used to support veterans. They were outraged after learning the agency had spent $100 million on conferences last year, including two events in Orlando, Fla.