Helping Our Heroes: What It's Like Waiting In The VA Benefits Line

Veteran Wallace Smith at the U.S. Vets dayroom dressed for a job interview.
Veteran's disability claim issues are growing. In the past, it the issue might have been an injured knee or back but now veterans are dealing with many more medical issues, like traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder. So if the nearly 1.7 million veterans living in Texas submitted an average of ten disability claims each, well, that’s a lot of claims and a long waiting list. As part of our ongoing military series "Helping Our Heroes," Edel Howlin asks, what's it like for a local veteran to be on that list?

U.S Army veteran Wallace Smith is from New Boston a small town just outside Texarkana. He’s tall, broad and dressed very smartly today because he’s trying to find a job to get his life back on track.

Smith left the military in 1995 with severe migraines and an injured knee. He filed his disability claim with these two issues not knowing he’d left something out.

“And then I didn’t know about the Post Traumatic Stress ‘til later. There’s a lot of issues a lot of stuff we [were] exposed [to] that I really didn’t know. I was having a lot of anger issues. I didn’t know how to deal with them, so I was having problems with my family and relationships.”

Problems that landed him on the streets, in different treatment centers and jail. He will be the first to admit that he’d hit rock bottom. The good news is Smith is getting help from the U.S. Veteran’s Initiative in Houston. But eventually to get back on his feet, he needs a job and his disability benefits.

“It’d help me support my kids for one thing and it’d be a lot less stress on me. You know that’s kinda hard too, not being the man I’m supposed to be to my family and that’s hurt a lot of veterans — not being the men that we’re supposed to be.”

The U.S Vets office re-filed for Wallace’s disability benefits 90 days ago and counting. His name is on a list of over 38,000 pending claims in Houston with an average waiting time of 309 days.

This waiting period can make things tough for those who’ve served their country says Tom Mitchell the Texas Director of U.S. Veterans Initiative.

“They’re not getting benefits can have a domino effect in that they no longer have income. They’re not able to pay their rent or their mortgage. They end up homeless or close to it. They have family issues, other medical issues. It becomes overwhelming after a while.”

U.S. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has made reducing this backlog one of his goals in office. So the VA has rolled out a new system to reduce the wait time to no more than 125 days by 2015. Houston was the first city to implement this system and 31% more claims have been processed this year. It’s a start says Buddy Grantham with the city’s office of veteran affairs, but he believes there’s more they could do. 

“I would like to see that the processes are done for their claims before they leave the military, so that the process is timely enough and the veteran already knows what he’s gonna get or what she’s not gonna get.”

Meanwhile veteran Wallace Smith waits for his benefits. Once they come through and if he gets a job, he knows exactly where he wants to go.

“In the country somewhere taking care of my kids, fishing, teaching them how to camp and have fun.”

As part of our military series “Helping Our Heroes,” we will check back in with Wallace Smith to see how he’s progressing in the disability claims line.

Bio photo of Edel Howlin

Edel Howlin

Producer, Houston Matters

Edel is a producer on Houston Matters and reporter for PBS’s Newshour Weekend...