WASHINGTON _ Perhaps the best metaphor for the enormity of the problem confronting wounded veterans like John Wypyszinski is his paperwork from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
It’s 1,683 pages long.
“My claim file is six inches thick,” says the 52-year retired Navy corpsman who is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and other physical wounds of his two tours in Iraq. “There is copy after copy after copy of the same document.”
Wypyszinski did finally get through the red tape and get approval for his disability benefits—after waiting two full years. Now he is helping fellow veterans cope with the Byzantine bureaucracy that has come to be known derisively as “The VA”—as the new veterans service officer for the town of Millis.
He is also serving as a leadership fellow for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to help bring more pressure on national leaders to address the growing backlog of claims at the VA—now estimated to be more than 600,000.
“The system is broken beyond repair,” Wypyszinski said in a telephone interview.
Wypyszinski, who encountered a series of bomb blasts and artillery fire while serving as a battlefield medic for Marines in the initial Iraq invasion in 2003 and during another tour in the restive city of Fallujah in 2006, said he never would have believed how wrenching it would be after he left the military.
Even his retirement pay didn’t show up for half a year after he got out in 2007.
“I had basically no income for the six months after I retired,” he said. The reason he was given: “a glitch in the system.”
“I had heard stories and I just never imagined I would have to go to the length I would have to to get the benefits and compensation I had earned,” he added.
What’s Wypyszinski’s message now for the commander-in-chief?
“I would tell President Obama to fire [VA Secretary Eric] Skinseki. He is not doing right by the veteran. We had very high hopes that he was going to address the problems with the VA. He has done very little to help us.”
As for Shinseki, himself a retired four-star general?
“I would tell him he should be ashamed of himself,” said Wypyszinski. “I don’t know how that man sleeps at night.”
Shinseki appears to be listening—finally. Responding to a public outcry in recent days over the backlog, he gave his first national media interview in four years on Sunday.
“No veteran should have to wait for claims like they are today,” Shinseki told CNN’s State of the Union. “We have a fix for this. We will end the backlog in 2015.”
Veterans advocates remain wary—and watching.
Said Tom Tarantino, the deputy policy director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America: “We’re tired of waiting for the VA to get their act together.”Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender