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W.Va. representatives back veterans benefits

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's Congressional delegation is backing a number of pieces of legislation to improve the lives of veterans, but the former head of the West Virginia National Guard said that money alone will not fix the problems afflicting the nation's veterans.

Nearly 11,000 West Virginia National Guardsmen have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since the war on terror began more than 12 years ago, said Adj. Gen. Allen Tackett, who recently retired from leading the state National Guard.

"If over 50 percent of them suffer from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], are there enough mental health professionals to deal with 5,000 or 6,000 kids coming back to West Virginia?" Tackett asked. "That is the problem."

"I think we do pretty good when people lose limbs. But when people see their buddies killed or maimed, that leaves a scar in their minds. That has a lot to do with the high suicide rate," Tackett said, noting that the suicide rate among service members is the highest it has ever been.

Rep. Nick Rahall is urging passage of legislation to cut the growing backlog of disability claims filed by veterans and to increase post-service employment opportunities for veterans.

A Democrat and a member of the Military Veterans Caucus, Rahall has co-sponsored several measures to cut today's backlog of almost 850,000 disability claims. That backlog forces veterans to wait up to 305 days for their claims to get processed.

"I aim to ensure that the Department of Veterans Affairs is doing all it can to meet the growing needs of our men and women as they transition from the military to civilian life," Rahall said.

"It is outrageous that the men and women who have served and sacrificed in defense of our nation are threatened by financial ruin and even death while waiting for their claims to be acted on.

"Our wounded warriors deserve to have their claims processed accurately and expediently," Rahall said. "Not doing so unnecessarily prolongs the physical and mental suffering of those who have already sacrificed so much."

Last week, Reps. David B. McKinley, R-W.Va., and Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., reintroduced the Safe Housing for Homeless Veterans Act to require veterans' homeless shelters to meet all building and fire codes.

"It should be unacceptable for us to allow homeless veterans be housed in unsafe conditions," McKinley said. "Fighting for our freedom, these men and women were put in harm's way; they should not be in doubt about their own safety now that they are home again."

Many shelters with homeless veterans have failed to comply with federal, state and local safety codes, resulting in numerous fires that injured or killed residents.

Rahall introduced legislation last week to guarantee automatic annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) increase to benefits received by veterans with disabilities from their time in military service, as well as benefits for their surviving spouses and dependent children.

Currently, Congress must pass legislation each year to approve that increase. The COLA legislation, which passed the House 416-0, will go to the Senate for its approval.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va, also backed legislation to cut the backlog in applications filed by veterans for disability benefits.

"Our nation's veterans have sacrificed so much for the country they love. After everything they have given, Congress has an obligation to provide them with the benefits they have earned," Capito said.

Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, both Democrats, also backed legislation to cut the backlog in veterans' benefit applications.

During a May 9 Senate hearing, Rockefeller said, "Far too often the veterans coming home, in particular those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, are not getting the care they deserve. It just takes too long for the VA to process health-care claims."

Growing difficulties in helping veterans

Tackett said that the amorphous nature of the war on terror, now in its 12th year, has led to a broader, unexpected array of veterans' problems, overwhelming the VA.

"They never expected all the PTSD and all the limbs that are gone. No one ever anticipated so many people coming back injured," Tackett said.

"The last major war we fought was Vietnam. Our military forces downsized when we were not fighting wars and not having to treat a lot of people.

"But when you get into this long global war on terror, which has lasted since 2001, thousands and thousands of soldiers, marines and airmen have been injured.

"The system is not there to help that many people," Tackett said. "If we were fighting a conventional war on a battlefield, we would not have had all these things happen.

"These are very unconventional wars that we have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Charles Bellomy, who heads the claims office in Huntington for the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance, said that they do everything they can, but that the VA is inundated with claims.

"We assist them in filing claims and filing appeals. We guide them through the federal process. But the VA has a horrendous backlog," said Bellomy, who recently retired from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, after 34 years.

"We have been at war for a long time," Bellomy said. "We have more disabled veterans than we have ever had in history."

Tackett does not oppose increasing funds to help injured and disabled veterans. But he believes the problems are much broader.

"Sometimes throwing money at something is not the answer. In this situation, there are so many people that have mental health problems," he said.

"We have VA facilities in Charleston, veterans' hospitals in Huntington and Beckley, a veterans' home in Barboursville and a nursing home in Clarksburg. But what do they do for people in outlying areas in a rural state?" Tackett asked. "There is a very long waiting list for veterans in West Virginia to get into a nursing home."

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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