Mike Montgomery earned what he is owed the hard way in 13 months of combat in Vietnam, where for days at a time the former Marine huddled in monsoon-swept rice paddies raked by enemy gunfire and exposed to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange sprayed from U.S. aircraft.
Since his 1968 discharge, Montgomery has fought the Department of Veterans Affairs over multiple health problems linked to his military service. The VA initially rated him as partially disabled.
But in 2010, he started feeling numbness and pain in his legs from the knees down. Now all Montgomery feels below his knees is pain.
Four doctors told him the condition was likely caused by his exposure to Agent Orange and the treatments he received for the seven malaria bouts he endured during his service.
Last June, Montgomery filed paperwork to change his disability rating to reflect the new condition. All he's heard since from the VA is two form letters noting the delay.
|Making America’s Heroes Wait
A Washington Examiner Watchdog investigative series on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ broken promises to U.S. military veterans.
Today: Vets trapped in endless VA bureaucracy
Coming tomorrow: Critics, IG say VA cooks claims books
Coming Wednesday: Vets face lies, damn lies and VA statistics
Coming Thursday: Claims backlog not our fault, VA officials say
Coming Friday: Claims backlog grows despite parade of VA ‘solutions’
"I can't make other people do their job and I can't make things work any faster," said Montgomery, part of a military family that included uncles who served in World War I, one son who fought in Desert Storm and another who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I think they just want me to get frustrated and say screw it and walk away and forget about it. When I wake up in the middle of the night screaming, it's hard to forget about," he told The Washington Examiner.
Montgomery is among the more than 1.1 million veterans trapped in bureaucratic limbo waiting for the VA to process claims for disability and pension benefits earned through military service. Many will wait years for an answer.
Almost 900,000 of those cases are stuck in one of VA's 57 regional offices, where claims workers determine whether the veterans' maladies are service-connected and warrant compensation through a monthly stipend.
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An additional quarter-million cases are on appeal, a process that typically takes more than three years before decisions are made.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki pledged in 2009 that the agency's mission is to process all benefits claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015.
But things have only gotten worse since Shinseki made that promise. Four years ago, an average of 161 days elapsed before the VA issued an initial rating on a disability application.
Today, it takes an average of 273 days -- nine months -- and waits are often longer than that. More than 70 percent of cases currently in the system have been there beyond Shinseki's 125-day pledge.
Mike Montgomery as a young Marine in Vietnam
VA officials say the backlog is getting worse because of the sheer number of claims being filed, both by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and from an aging population of those who served in earlier conflicts. In the last three years, the VA has processed more than 3.1 million cases, but almost 3.6 million new claims were filed, according to agency records.
When the rating decision is finally made, odds are it is incorrect, according to agency statistics and multiple investigations by the VA's inspector general.
The claims backlog has spiraled even as the VA's budget has gone from $98 billion in 2009 to $140 billion today. Similarly, the VA's staff increased from 297,234 in 2009 to 324,498 in 2012, a 9 percent expansion.
Mike Montgomery today with his son, Jason, a Navy Seabee who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan
"This is a tremendous problem," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. "It does show that just throwing dollars and people at the problem won't solve it."
Mistakes in the initial rating decision often doom veterans to years of additional waiting on appeals, first through the agency's internal board and then in the courts.
That's assuming the board renders a final decision the first time it hears the case. In nearly half the cases, claims are returned to the regional office for more work because of errors or incomplete information. Then it takes an average of more than 14 months to get such cases back before the board.
So Montgomery and a million other veterans are left to wait.
"I'm trying to be optimistic and say maybe they're busy," he said. "Maybe they don't give a damn."
Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog reporting team. Contact him at email@example.com.