Wounded warriors caught in VA benefits waiting game - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Wounded warriors caught in VA benefits waiting game

NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

The Channel 4 I-Team recently reported on a massive backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs affecting thousands of Tennesseans, specifically Vietnam veterans, in their attempt to obtain benefits.

After that story aired, we heard from dozens of other veterans and their families who say they're in the same situation, including the wife of one wounded warrior hurt in Iraq. That family's story has now changed dramatically after the I-Team got involved.

Sgt. Keith Hale will tell you his time at home has been harder than his time at war.

"It's been tough," he said.

Hale was severely injured in June 2010 as an Army sergeant serving in Iraq. Since then, he has been struggling with a traumatic brain injury, hearing loss, PTSD and nerve damage in his right leg.

His leg injury is so bad he has to use a wheelchair or a scooter to get around.

"We're just in survival mode, you know, right now. It's just, 'Make sure the kids have something to eat, make sure there is a roof over our head and make sure he gets to appointments,'" said Hale's wife, TiAnna Hale.

The Hales say they have been fighting to get disability benefits from the VA since 2010, and in the time since, their life at home has nearly fallen apart.

Keith Hale can't work because of his injuries, and TiAnna Hale had to quit her job to be his caretaker.

If it wasn't for help from Keith Hale's mom, the couple said they and their three young children would now be homeless.

Even though the Hales say they were still receiving medical care through the local VA and Keith's military salary, it wasn't enough to make ends meet.

They lost their house, their car and they haven't even been able to afford therapy for their 7-year-old son, who has autism.

"And that happens to other guys, too. We ain't the only people in this," Keith Hale said.

He is talking about the thousands of other soldiers who face the same delay in getting help after coming home from war. The Hales said they've had to pay out of pocket for things like gas money to and from Keith Hale's many doctor's appointments and medicine that he needs.

That was until the Channel 4 I-Team got involved.

"We have gotten four calls today alone from the VA," TiAnna Hale said.

The I-Team put in a request with the VA on July 2, asking for comment about the Hales' case. Then, on July 10 - the day we interviewed Keith Hale and his wife - the VA deposited a sizeable retro-active payment into Keith Hale's bank account.

Plus, his claim has now been finalized, which means the Hales will now receive monthly disability payments for life.

Army officials with the VA in Seattle, WA, agreed to talk with the I-Team by phone about Keith Hale's case and the many other wounded warriors who are still waiting on disability benefits.

While Keith Hale is treated by doctors at the Nashville and Murfreesboro VA hospitals, his claim is processed and finalized through an office in Seattle. Officials there said, by law, they cannot start paying out disability benefits until a soldier is no longer active duty.

"It is the VA's responsibility to care for those who have served for this country, and, you know, we have been at war for 10 years, and it has placed a tremendous amount of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in the system," said Willie Clark, with the Department of Veterans Affairs. "We are doing well. We need to do better, and we are instituting some measures that will make us more efficient to cut down on that time."

As for the many other servicemen and women waiting on their disability benefits, we're told it's taking an average of four months to process each of their claims, but the VA admits some cases more complex than others could take longer.

To put the benefits backlog in perspective, right now, more than 6,000 soldiers are still waiting for their disability benefits. And, that's just numbers from the Army. It doesn't include Marines, sailors or members of the Air Force who were hurt at war.

Sgt. Keith Hale was injured in 2010 but wasn't officially discharged from active duty until February. The VA says the reason it keeps soldiers like Hale on active duty for so long even after they're injured is so that they will continue getting their military salary and benefits while their claims are processed.

While the VA says it only took 132 days to process Keith Hale's claim, the Hales see it differently. They say it was a long three years from the time he was injured, and in that time, the Hales say they went six months with no income at all coming in from the military.

Copyright 2013 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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