The Wait We Carry: Visualization Tool Reveals The True Human Cost of the VA Backlog

Jonathan Goodman served in the Marines and twice was deployed to Iraq. In 2005, he earned a Purple Heart Medal for wounds sustained in a suicide-bomb blast. Returning to the U.S., he has struggled with traumatic brain injury, chronic migraines, anxiety, and pain in his ankles, arms, and back. On July 1, 2012, he filed a disability claim with the Department of Veteran Affairs.

And Jonathan has been waiting ever since - almost a full year - for a decision on his claim. While he gets medical treatment from the local VA hospital, he has said that the backlog delay has put a huge financial strain on him and his wife. Both he and his wife are putting in longer hours and taking extra work shifts. This didn't have to happen.

The debate about the VA disability claims backlog has been about many things, but for us, it first and foremost is about Jonathan and the hundreds of thousands of veterans facing an enduring and straining wait. These people are more than just about numbers. They are fathers, mothers, daughters and sons. And they have a voice.

To shine a spotlight on the struggles of these veterans and their families, IAVA has launched an incredibly important and innovative online resource, The Wait We Carry

Created with support from the Knight Foundation, is visually stunning and easy to navigate. Veterans' stories are presented in a clear way, showing the public - including public officials - how the backlog personally affects hundreds of thousands of veterans like Jonathan.

We agree with Michael Maness, Vice President of Journalism and Media Innovation at Knight Foundation: "This project demonstrates the power of joining design and data to help communities understand and solve problems."

The problem we must fix - veterans waiting unacceptable lengths of time for a decision on their disability claim - is a critical one for our community. And also for the soul of our nation.

Every day, we hear from veterans waiting for decisions on their disability claims. Disabled veterans of all generations are waiting for the financial support, health care and benefits from the country they served.

Veterans don't just deserve these benefits, they need them. Disability benefits are intended to help veterans and their families make up for the loss of earnings caused by their service disabilities, and to ensure free long-term care for those very injuries. These benefits are the very least we can provide.

IAVA, along with our allies in Congress and the veteran community, have been sending that message loud and clear since the beginning of our #EndtheVABacklog campaign in March, as the VA backlog reached a high (or rather, low) point.

In response to the national outcry, the Department of Veterans Affairs finally acted with heightened focus and new steps to end the backlog by its public goal of 2015.

In the last two months, the VA has implemented a series of incremental steps that have reduced the backlog and given veterans the help they need to live their lives.

Yet, we wonder didn't VA make common sense changes - like mandatory overtime - sooner? Why did it take the nation's scrutiny to bring about a greater sense of urgency? And how did leaders in Washington let it get this bad to begin with?

We celebrate that the backlog is going down slightly. We share the relief of veterans when they let us know that their wait - some longer than two years - has ended. But this is not Game 7. It's more like Game 2. Nothing is over yet. And no one should be satisfied or popping any champagne. Good teams finish. And this is far from finished.

Washington can spin almost any issue. But the stories of these veterans cut through any spin. And that's why this tool is so powerful. It finally gives backlogged vets a chance to tell their story. And it puts real lives behind abstract numbers.

There are not just 547,922 files stacked up, waiting for action from the VA. There are 547,922 people, just like Jonathan, whose lives are on hold, waiting for a broken bureaucracy to be fixed once and for all.

And that's unlikely to happen without the President's help. We need him to be engaged, and ensuring this gets fixed ASAP. We've laid out specific ways the Commander in Chief can help right now, and we hope he reads our suggestions. These are the prime-time shots he needs to take. And the shots he needs to make.

But first, we hope he visits the Wait We Carry and takes a few minutes to see the stories of those struggling in the backlog. It'll bring it all home and ensure that he truly appreciates the scope and urgency facing our community.