Assignment 7

Disability claims pose long wait for veterans

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Since 2001, post-traumatic stress disorders, or PTSDs, may have tripled among U.S. combat troops. That is according to a report by the Naval Health Research Center. PTSDs and brain injuries have become signature wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now there's a huge backlog of claims among returning veterans.

"I don't care if someone just went into war for a day, if they saw combat, been around it, it's going to affect them," says Guido Gualco, a Gulf War veteran.

Former Marine Corporal Guido Gualco served in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during the late 80s in Operation Desert Storm. He says they were under constant fire.

"We were receiving scuds, cluster bombs, going across mine fields, tank rounds," says Gualco.

Gualco enlisted when he was 19. He was discharged four years later in 1991. However, he was still fighting the war at home in Stanislaus County. First came anxiety attacks, then the nightmares.

"I'd be going to the local shopping center and then coming under attack. So even places that were safe in reality, but in dreams they would come under fire," says Gualco. "Doing perimeter checks around your apartment or your house. I've talked to vets and even myself, I've set up boobie traps around my windows, whatever, just to give a sense of security."

He turned to alcohol and drugs.

"You use meth to stay awake so you didn't dream or I would drink enough to be passed out where I wouldn't dream," says Gualco.

Gualco was suffering from PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, but he didn't know it. Nor he says did VA doctors who didn't diagnose his condition until 2005 -- 14 years after he was discharged. By then he was suicidal, even begging his friend to kill him.

"I was questioning God why I was alive. I didn't want to live," says Gualco.

Gualco had all the symptoms of what has become the signature wounds of America's war on terror.

"Of the 1.6 million service members sent to the Iraq-Afghanistan wars, the VA is estimating about a third are going to come home with a mental health condition such as post-traumatic stress disorder," says Paul Sullivan with Veterans for Common Sense.

Many have brain injuries caused by IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), better known as roadside bombs. The blasts can send violent shockwaves for more than a quarter-mile, injuring soldiers without evidence of a single scratch.

Kevin Barry was a New York City bomb squad detective for decades. He's now on the board of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators.

"That pressure wave is going inside the helmet and actually going to come up right on the top of the brain and clash against itself and meet at the top of the helmet and then again, where is it going to go? It's going to reflect down on the cranium," says Barry.

With the help of the veterans group, Swords to Plowshares, Gualco was able to get his disability claim from the VA within a reasonable time, but he still has a pending claim for a back injury which he filed 17 years ago.

Attorney Sid Wolinsky calls those long waits for VA claims a crisis.

"It's a dysfunctional system and they are now backlogged over 600,000 cases with waits that veterans have that take years," sais Sid Wolinsky with Disability Rights Advocates.

Wolinsky is one of the lawyers representing veterans groups which are suing the VA. The lawsuit wants the federal court to order the agency to reduce its huge backlog of claims.

"You know, it almost felt like being abandoned. It was kind of like they left me high and dry," says former Army Specialist Tim Chapman.

It took Chapman of Stockton a year to get his disability claim. In 2006, Chapman was told he had a personality disorder and was honorably discharged after serving in the Middle East as a humvee gunner.

"A personality disorder? I didn't even know what a personality disorder was?" says Chapman. "I was a good soldier. I took orders well. I gave everything 110-percent."

Chapman was discharged without being checked for PTSD. All he knows is that he was in a deep depression over problems at home.

"I lost two grandfathers, one of which was really close to me. I was newly married. I had a lot of issues," says Chapman.

Witnessing the ravages of war made him worse.

"I saw guys that were blown up. There was a guy that was missing his legs," says Chapman.

"What they're not told is if it's a personality disorder discharge, they lose all their benefits," says Wolinsky.

Last month, the veterans groups won a major legal victory. A federal judge cleared the way for their lawsuit to go forward by denying the government's motion to dismiss the case. But Wolinsky says there is a sense of urgency because suicides among returning veterans are reaching epidemic proportions.

"It's double what it is in the general population and for those in the 20 to 24-year-old category returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, it's two to four times what it is in the general population," says Wolinsky.

The Justice Department is representing the VA in the lawsuit. Both agencies declined comment on this story because of the pending litigation.

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