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Discharged and dishonored: Shortchanging America's veterans


CHRIS ADAMS and ALISON YOUNG
Knight Ridder

Jan 14, 2006



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MONEY RECALLED

The agency goes so far as to take back money it's already paid. George Wilkes, a World War II sailor, spent the last five years of his life fighting to increase his disability rating, which stemmed from a spinal cord injury. In April 1997, the VA agreed with him and said he was due back benefits of $109,464.

Wilkes, ill with pneumonia, died four days later. Six days after that, the VA wired the money into his bank account.

Once the VA realized Wilkes had died, it wouldn't let his family keep the money. Although he had no immediate family, Wilkes' nephew and niece had tended to him for years, allowing him to stay in his New Orleans home.

Had the money come years earlier, it "would have had a substantial impact on his life," said nephew Ray Wilkes of Covington, La. "His house was pretty deplorable and was deteriorating. But he was determined to live on his own."

In an October interview, then-Secretary Principi said he was "stung" when he learned a few years ago how common it is for veterans to die with their cases in limbo. While some deaths are inevitable, given the VA's elderly clientele, "it's not acceptable," he said. "We need to do something about it."

He also suggested that a recently formed commission on benefits could reconsider the legal barriers that prevent heirs other than a wife or dependent child from receiving a deceased veteran's back benefits. The VA has admitted that its processes are too slow and too prone to errors. And veterans have told the agency that they suspect the worst: that the agency is "just stalling, waiting for them to die so the claim won't have to be paid," veterans said in focus groups in 1995.

But the agency has repeatedly ignored recommendations to eliminate redundant steps in the process to speed things up. One exhaustive review, completed in 1996, declared the entire claims and appeals process "cumbersome and outmoded" and in need of an overhaul.

Since then, "I think things are basically the same," said the agency's Walcoff. "I wouldn't say that we have changed the system in any major way."

Part One : Part Two : Part three : Park Four : Part Five :
Part Six : Part Seven : Part Eight : Part Nine : Part 10


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