The price of freedom: Nearly half of returning veterans seek disability

By Marilynn Marchione

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, May 27 2012 10:44 p.m. MDT

In this Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011 file photo, veterans from all eras after gather at the Humboldt Park Armory in Chicago for an event sponsored by the Veteran's Administration on the eve of Veteran's Day. The vets received food, clothing, health screenings, VA and social security benefits and employment counseling. A record number of new veterans are seeking compensation for service-related disabilities. So far, 45 percent have filed claims, more than double the 21 percent that did after some other recent wars. It's a long wait for an answer: About 60 percent of claims were backlogged more than 125 days last year, up from 36 percent of claims the year before. Accurate determinations were made in only 77 to 84 percent of cases, according to two different government estimates. (AP Photo/Robert Ray)

Robert Ray, File, Associated Press

Read more: Photos: Americans honor troops for Memorial Day

America's newest veterans are filing for disability benefits at a historic rate, claiming to be the most medically and mentally troubled generation of former troops the nation has ever seen.

A staggering 45 percent of the 1.6 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now seeking compensation for injuries they say are service-related. That is more than double the estimate of 21 percent who filed such claims after some other relatively recent wars, top government officials told The Associated Press.

What's more, these new veterans are claiming eight to nine ailments on average, and the most recent ones over the last year are claiming 11 to 14. By comparison, Vietnam veterans claimed less than four and those from World War II and Korea, just two. Problems can be anything from a bad back to hearing loss to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

It's unclear how much worse off these new veterans are than their predecessors. Many factors are driving the dramatic increase in claims — the weak economy, more troops surviving wounds, and more awareness of problems such as concussions and PTSD.

Government officials and some veterans' advocates say that veterans who might have been able to work with certain disabilities may be more inclined to seek benefits now because they lost jobs or can't find any. Aggressive outreach and advocacy efforts also have brought more veterans into the system, which must evaluate each claim to see if it is war-related. Payments range from $127 a month for a 10 percent disability to $2,769 for a full one.

As the nation commemorates the more than 6,400 troops who died in post-9/11 wars, the problems of those who survived also draw attention. These new veterans are seeking a level of help the government did not anticipate, and for which there is no special fund set aside to pay.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is mired in backlogged claims, but "our mission is to take care of whatever the population is," said Allison Hickey, the VA's undersecretary for benefits. "We want them to have what their entitlement is."

The 21 percent who filed claims in previous wars is Hickey's estimate of an average, dating back through World War II. The VA has details only on the current disability claims being paid to veterans of each war.

The AP spent three months reviewing records and talking with doctors, government officials and former troops to take stock of the new veterans. They are different in many ways from those who fought before them.

More are from the Reserves and National Guard — 43 percent of those filing disability claims — rather than career military. Reserves and National Guard made up a greater percentage of troops in these wars than they did in previous ones. Details on how their rate of claims compares to other branches of the military, taking into account how many of them saw combat, are not available.

More of the new veterans are women, accounting for 12 percent of those who have sought care through the VA. Women also served in greater numbers in these wars than in the past. Some female veterans are claiming PTSD due to military sexual trauma — a new challenge from a disability rating standpoint, Hickey said.

The new veterans have different types of injuries than previous veterans did. That's partly because improvised bombs have been the main weapon and because body armor and improved battlefield care allowed many of them to survive wounds that in past wars proved fatal.

"They're being kept alive at unprecedented rates," said Dr. David Cifu, the VA's medical rehabilitation chief. More than 95 percent of troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have survived.

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