A Navy veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) is suffering from respiratory problems after being exposed to burn pits while supporting operations on the ground in Iraq. Every breath requires more effort than expected, and every breath reminds him of Iraq. He is financially strapped and in need of treatment for what he thinks might be post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Unfortunately, he has yet to successfully claim his benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Many wounded veterans begin their post-military lives with stories like this -- stories of struggling to navigate the VA to secure their benefits -- benefits they have been promised and benefits they have earned.
Since our country's founding, we have promised to ensure that those who serve and protect our nation will have the financial, physical, mental health, and networking foundations needed to thrive in their post-military lives. This national promise to support our injured veterans is sacred and rarely questioned.
But realizing that promise has proved difficult, and as a result, many wounded servicemen and women struggle to transition successfully from military to civilian life. They find it difficult to translate military skills, or they find that their basic needs that were previously covered by the military -- like housing, meals, and financial security -- are no longer automatically available. And many return home with hidden, and not-so-hidden, scars of conflict.
In fact, the number of post-9/11 service members suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), and other life-altering injuries is at an all-time high.
According to the Rand Corporation's study, Invisible Wounds of War, 14 percent -- or approximately 378,000 post-9/11 veterans -- met symptom criteria for PTSD. The Department of Defense's Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center suggests that 339,462 post-9/11 service members have been diagnosed with a TBI.
The challenges facing this generation's veteran population were reinforced in the 2015 Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) annual Alumni Survey. A full 76.2 percent of the 58,933 WWP Alumni who responded to the survey reported experiencing PTSD. Depression, anxiety and sleep problems were also alarmingly high.
But despite these challenges and rapidly rising numbers, actually securing VA benefits is an all too common obstacle. The application process is cumbersome and requires considerable documentation. The VA is chronically understaffed. The switch from paper to computerized claims processes has hardly been smooth. And the 2015 Federal Veterans Laws, Rules, and Regulations manual is now 2,143 pages. According to VA data itself, it takes 273 days for the VA to process a claim. A full 244,939 injured veterans wait more than one year and more than 58,000 wait a full two years for their claims to be fully resolved.
The consequences are clear. This struggle undermines wounded service members' ability to start post-military life on solid footing. Their employment options are limited, especially when facing mental and physical challenges, often leading to financial distress.
Not surprisingly, veterans feel abandoned and confused. Many feel like they are failing themselves and their families, and many wonder why our country's promise to them is being broken.
Fortunately, there is still hope. There are programs and people all over the country designed to help veterans get the services they need. For instance, the Wounded Warrior Project Benefits Service program team helps injured veterans build out fully developed VA claims and secure the benefits they have earned.
The Benefits Service team is able to help warriors receive the medical and mental health care they need, even after failed VA claims processes. Through benefits, like monthly disability compensation over warriors' lives, the WWP team gives wounded veterans a foundation from which to build successful post-deployment lives.
And while every case has its own wrinkles, stories of wounded service members struggling with health issues and struggling to secure benefits aren't unique. That's why WWP has invested strategically in its Benefits Service program. Since 2008, WWP has helped injured veterans secure $190,432,805 in earned benefits. In 2015, 89.2 percent of benefits claims supported by WWP were awarded -- a remarkable success rate.
WWP has also successfully spearheaded two laws that have positively reshaped the landscape for injured veterans and their families: The Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance Traumatic Injury Protection (TSGLI) and the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010.
TSGLI expands insurance guarantees for seriously injured veterans whose medical and financial needs were accruing before VA disability payments began. Since 2001, the legislation has paid out more than $2.6 billion. At the same time, the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act has provided critical financial support to caregivers whose lives and careers have been radically altered as they provide support for their injured loved-ones. To date, caregivers have received a total of $905 million as a result of this bill.
Together with other veterans' service organizations, WWP is taking meaningful steps to help more and more warriors see our country's promise of support fulfilled.