A report by the Government Accountability Office in Washington shows that wounded veterans are now waiting an average of nine months to hear if their disability claims have been approved by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
They are veterans like Neil Rogers, a former Blackhawk helicopter pilot from Fort Campbell.
Rogers may look healthy, but he struggles to breathe because of a condition called constrictive bronchiolitis, a rare lung condition that is incurable and untreatable.
Rogers describes it as breathing through a straw. After a few minutes, moving around becomes impossible.
He said the condition causes him to feel like an elephant is sitting on his chest.
"Even sitting, watching TV at home, I'd still have chest pain," Rogers said. "If I bend down to put on one shoe, I have to rest before I can put on the other one."
Rogers flew helicopters in Iraq in 2003. During that time, he often flew through the smoke of a burning sulphur plant.
But his condition is so rare that it doesn't fit in the VA's list of injuries and diseases.
"There's a huge lack of knowledge for this condition. And it's very frustrating and disappointing," said wife Christy Rogers.
Today's veterans are facing more complicated medical problems, such as past exposure to Agent Orange, traumatic brain injuries and rare breathing disorders.
That's one reason there's an increasing backlog in how long it takes the Veterans Administration to process disability claims. It took Neil and Christy Rogers a year to go through the process.
"A lot of new things are coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq, especially your respiratory-type things. They don't know what it is, so they have to take a lot of time to investigate it," said Neil Rogers.
"If you don't have a black-and-white condition, you have to fight for every entitlement there is," Christy Rogers said.
The Government Accountability Office's report said the timely processing of veterans' disability benefits remains a daunting challenge for the agency.
The GAO found that the VA's backlog of claims awaiting a decision for more than 125 days has more than tripled since 2009. The average length of time to complete a claim in 2012 was 260 days.
"The sheer volume is really what's causing it," Neil Rogers said.
The VA is trying to make improvements. For example, it is now streamlining its paper-intensive claims process.
"There are huge amounts of paperwork - phone books of paperwork. We call it the Sistine Chapel of appeals," Christy Rogers said.
She and her husband commend the VA for changes it has in the works, but they are anxious to see more done.
"These guys didn't do this to themselves. They didn't ask for this to happen. They were serving their country and doing their jobs," Christy Rogers said.
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Tuesday, May 21 2013 8:39 PM EDT2013-05-22 00:39:52 GMT
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