Thursday, March 31, 2011

VA Works to Break Disability Claims Backlog

By Donna Miles 
American Forces Press Service
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., March 30, 2011 - Former Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Tyrone Allen is part of a growing legion within the Veterans Affairs Department striving to make good on VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki's pledge to "break the back of the claims backlog."
Click photo for screen-resolution image
Former Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Tyrone Allen, a disabled veteran participating in the 25th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, Colo., is a Veterans Affairs Department claims assistant helping VA to resolve its disability claims backlog. DOD photo by Donna Miles 
Allen understands firsthand the frustrations many veterans feel as they wait for VA to adjudicate their disability benefits claims. An electrician's mate aboard USS Wasp as it operated off the Djibouti coast in 2004, he suffered a cracked skull, traumatic brain injury and compressed spine when a hatch came crashing down on his head.
The VA claims process took far too long, Allen said, noting that he's still awaiting adjustments as his back condition worsens.
But today, Allen is part of VA's fix -– he's a VA claims assistant working at the Huntington VA Medical Center in West Virginia. He's among a legion of more than 3,500 new employees VA has hired to expedite claims processing as it introduces other systemic improvements.
"It is really unacceptable that the backlog is as big as it is and it takes as long as it does for veterans to receive their claims," Deputy VA Secretary W. Scott Gould said during an interview here with American Forces Press Service.
VA's goal by 2015, he said, is for veterans to wait no more than 125 days for a decision on a claim, with a 98 percent accuracy rate.
Gould spoke about the claims process while participating in the 25th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, an annual event that this year brought together more than 350 disabled veterans, including Allen.
VA completed 977,000 claims in 2009, but took in, for the first time, more than a million new ones. In 2010, VA completed 1 million claims, but received 1.2 million new ones. By the end of 2011, officials expect to receive 1.45 million claims –- a double-digit increase over the number of claims received in 2000.
Gould attributed many of the new claims to the new wave of combat veterans with complex medical issues just entering the VA system. However, he acknowledged, 65 percent were resubmissions from veterans already in it.
"We have been experiencing a growth in new claims, even as our overall production has been increasing," he said.
So to reach its goal, VA has attacked the challenge on three fronts, Gould explained.
The first involves people: hiring new claims processors and improving the way the VA trains them.
But "merely hiring more people to handle claims won't let us get ahead of the incoming surge, let alone cleave the size of the backlog," Shinseki has often said.
So VA is working to improve its systems and automate as quickly as possible. Its second major focus in reducing the backlog involves "reinvesting and re-engineering the business process we use to complete the claims," Gould said. This includes accepting online applications for initial disability benefits, initiating an innovation competition and launching more than 30 pilot programs and initiatives to identify best practices.
Finally, VA is investing in new technology to support these efforts. Gould said he's particularly excited about one recent accomplishment, the result of a pilot program for the paperless Veterans Benefits Management System that VA plans to deploy in fiscal 2012.
"We completed our first all-electronic claim in just 47 days," Gould said of the pilot that's being conducted in Rhode Island. And although the claim involved was relatively simple and straightforward, Gould called entirely automated processing capability it proved a major step toward VA's goals.
VA's fiscal 2012 budget request includes $2 billion to support these claims-processing initiatives, up 19.5 percent over fiscal 2010.
"So we are very optimistic that we can achieve our goal of no claim taking longer than 125 days with 98 percent quality," he said. "And right now, we are just not meeting either of those standards."
Gould said he's confident VA is on the right track in reaching Shinseki's goals to end the claims backlog by 2014. "We think we can get there," he said. "It is something we have got to fix together."
Allen said he's proud of the role he's personally playing in helping to reach these goals -- scheduling hearings, contacting veterans and helping to process their applications.
"I'm helping to make sure veterans get what they need, and that when they apply for something, everything goes through without delay," he said. "I have been where they are, so I understand the importance of trying to make things happen as speedy as possible."
W. Scott Gould
Related Sites:
National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic 
Department of Veterans Affairs 

Click photo for screen-resolution imageDeputy Veterans Affairs Secretary W. Scott Gould speaks at opening ceremonies for the 25th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, Colo., March 27, 2011. Gould said VA is tackling its disability claims backlog on three fronts, with a goal of eliminating it entirely by 2014. VA photo by Jeff Bowen

Point Man Steers Team From Danger

By Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell 
Task Force Bastogne
KUNAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan, March 30, 2011 - "I can say that I've led this platoon into more ambushes than any other point man here on this deployment," Army Sgt. Nathaniel S. Gray said with a toothy grin and a slow, southern accent.
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Army Sgt. Nathaniel S. Gray scans the mountainside during a combat operation in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province, March 16, 2011. Gray is on his third combat tour. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell 
"I was point man for the first six, seven months here," he continued. "I walked us into a lot. I can smell it, but I don't know where it's at. I know it's going to happen. Every time we were walking, I was looking for my next covered and concealed position. You know, I'd look at this rock, then that rock. 'Oh, there's another rock, that's where I'm going.' I just never knew when it was going to happen."
Gray, assigned to the 101st Airborne Division's Company B, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, Task Force No Slack, now is a squad leader and has an uncanny knack for getting himself and his team out of tight spots. Even before joining the Army, Gray found ways out of potentially hairy situations.
He grew up in Tupelo, Miss., a town about the same size as Asadabad, the capital of Afghanistan's Kunar province, where he now patrols. As a teenager, he watched war movies and idolized the men in those action roles who wore Screaming Eagle patches on their shoulders.
"If you see TV or movies, who wouldn't choose the 101st?" Gray said. "If you see 'Hamburger Hill,' with those dudes charging up the side of a mountain, who wouldn't want to do that?"
After returning from his first combat tour in Iraq, he quickly joined the 101st Airborne Division and deployed again to Iraq with the division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team for 15 months.
Now, 10 months into a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, Gray stares out of his makeshift fighting position into the Shigal Valley.
"You see something?" another soldier asked. "Ah, it's just dead trees."
"Make sure you know where it's coming from before you shoot, know what I mean?" Gray said to the soldier. "I expect a rocket-propelled grenade to come from that ridgeline over there."
It was quiet for a few minutes as the soldiers scanned the ridges with their weapons.
Then Gray said, "Actually, it's my sons' birthdays today."
Jacob and Joseph, twins, turned 5 years old March 16. Gray said he sent home a bow and arrow set for their presents. He started laughing.
"Last time I was home, one of them was walking around the gas station we were at singing the Pledge of Allegiance," Gray said. "I thought that was pretty cool."
Gray said his sons are one of the main reasons he has stayed in the Army. He is able to care for them, he added, but they also look up to and admire him for being a soldier.
"They want camouflage stuff -- you know, they're 5," he said with a smile. "They want the GI Joe backpack, and I think that's pretty cool."
Then he explained the difference between being a squad leader and a father.
"Over here, a squad leader is more difficult than taking care of kids," Gray explained. "Here, you have to check to make sure their magazines are full, their [combat optics] are tied down -- you have to check everything. Small things have bigger consequences over here."
Since joining the Army, Gray said, he has learned it's the little things that count.
"The Army changed my life a lot," he said. "It kind of distilled something in me. I started doing the right thing. I respect myself more, and I respect others more."
After dodging as many more ambushes as he can in his three years left in the military, Gray said, he plans on going to college and walking into one more ambush: being swarmed by children.
"I want to be a kindergarten teacher," he said.
The fighting position on the mountain was quiet for a moment, and then erupted with muffled laughter from his troops.
"Everybody laughs, but that's what I want to do," Gray said. "I love kids."
A few days later, back home in Mississippi, Jacob and Joseph got a phone call. Their dad was on the line, far away from them, but reassuring them that he found a safe route off the mountain.
Gray has a certain knack for that.
Related Sites:
NATO International Security Assistance Force 

National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic

Click photo for screen-resolution imageFormer Army Sgt. Kevin Pannell, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, said he loves the activities at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, Colo., but that the people make it special.

DOD photo
by Donna Miles
Click photo for screen-resolution imageFormer Army Sgt. Robert Schuler, left, and his wife, Rebecca, take a break during the 25th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, Colo., March 28, 2011. Schuler, who broke his back in a boogie-boarding accident six months after returning from his deployment to Iraq, said he "had a blast" at the 2010 clinic and jumped at the chance to return. 

DOD photo by Donna Miles 

Camaraderie, Challenge Inspire Wounded Warriors

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., March 29, 2011 - Camaraderie and the opportunity to challenge themselves are proving to be some of the best therapy possible for wounded warriors attending the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic here as it celebrates its 25th anniversary.
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Former Army Spc. Barbara Newstrom, left, and Army Sgt. John Barnes, center, both wounded during Operation Iraqi Freedom, take a break during the 25th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, Colo., March 28, 2011. Joining them is Barnes' mother, Valerie Wallace, who watched the changes last year's clinic helped to bring about in her son. DOD photo by Donna Miles
Few might have guessed during the early days of last year's clinic that one of its most reluctant participants would return this year as one of its biggest supporters.
Retired Army Sgt. John Barnes suffered a severe traumatic brain injury during a mortar attack in 2006 while he was deployed to southwestern Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division. His injury sent him into a downward spiral as he struggled with TBI, post-traumatic stress and substance abuse.
Attending his first winter sports clinic last year, Barnes was ready to call it quits from the start. His luggage was lost in transit, and the high altitude made him feel miserable.
"My son was convinced that this was going to be a horrible week and said we should just go home," Barnes' mother, Valerie Wallace, recalled. "He was irritable, negative and just kept saying he wanted to go home. He said he would never come back here again."
But snowboarding the first morning of the clinic changed everything. "When he left the snow, he was excited, happy and exhilarated," Wallace said. "He was excitedly telling everyone who would listen how he was going to get back on the mountain ... and 'tear it up.'"
By the week's end, Barnes was singled out to receive the Disabled American Veterans Freedom Award for Outstanding Courage and Achievement. The award recognizes the first-time participant at the clinic who best exemplifies courage and achievement while taking a giant step forward in rehabilitation.
This year, Barnes enthusiastically returned to the clinic, recognizing the changes it helped him make in his life. "This gave me a lot more self-confidence," he said. "It shows you that you can do things you didn't think you could because you limit yourself. This helps take away those limits."
Barnes is among about 100 veterans of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan participating in this year's winter sports clinic.
Many, like former Army Spc. Barbara Newstrom, say they've grown through their experiences on Snowmass Mountain and are passing those lessons on to first-timers to the clinic, many of whom still are learning to live with their disabilities.
Newstrom was a medic and truck driver deployed to Iraq with the Army Reserve's Las Vegas-based 257th Transportation Company in October 2003 when an enemy attack left her with a traumatic brain injury. The winter sports clinic, she said, has made a huge difference in her rehabilitation and given her a sense of belonging that's hard to find elsewhere.
"This is an environment where you don't feel different," she said. "If you can't find a word, you get lost in the hotel or you have anxiety issues, people here understand. You feel acceptance and understanding. It's what makes this place so special, because it feels like family."
Newstrom said she strives to welcome first-time participants at the clinic into the fold.
"We try to reach out to the new veteran coming in and teach them the little things we've learned along the way," she said. "We try to pass it on to them so they can benefit from it, too."
Former Army Sgt. Kevin Pannell, also a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, said he took so much away from his first clinic last year that he, too, anxiously returned for its silver anniversary celebration.
"The snow is cool, but that's not really what brought me back," Pannell said. "It's the people here. They're what make this place really something."
Pannell was deployed to eastern Baghdad with the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, in June 2004 when two grenades lobbed during an ambush tore off both his legs -– one below the knee and one just above. As he recovered from his wounds, Pannell took up snowboarding and with it, a whole new outlook on life.
"I'm a happier person now," he said. "I realized that I hadn't been getting the most out of what life is until I almost had the rug pulled out from me. Some people think it sounds strange, but I am actually a better, happier person since this happened to me."
Some participants in the winter sports clinic, like former Army Sgt. Robert Schuler, suffered their injuries after returning from combat. Schuler was back just six months from his deployment with the Hawaii-based 25th Special Troops Battalion when a freak boogie-boarding accident in May 2008 broke his neck and put him into a wheelchair. Less than two years after his injury, Schuler jumped at the chance to attend his first winter sports clinic last year.
"I just had a blast on the mountain," he said. "But it went beyond that. What's really neat here is the chance to talk to other veterans. You learn about yourself. And when you see people with less function than you have, it opens your eyes to new possibilities about what you are able to do."
The winter sports clinic, jointly sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans, uses recreation as a rehabilitative tool for veterans with disabilities ranging from spinal cord injuries and orthopedic amputations to visual impairment and neurological conditions.
As veterans learn adaptive Alpine and Nordic skiing and get introduced to rock climbing, scuba diving, trapshooting, curling, snowmobiling and sled hockey during a five-day program, program officials strive to open their eyes to a new world of opportunity.
Related Sites:
National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic 
Department of Veterans Affairs
Disabled American Veterans
Related Articles:
Biden Encourages Winter Sports Clinic Participants
Disabled Veterans Inspire All Americans, Biden Says 
Disabled Veterans Sports Clinic Opens in Colorado 

Joe Biden greets participants of Winter Sports

Click photo for screen-resolution imageVice President Joe Biden greets a participant at the opening ceremonies for the 25th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, Colo., March 27, 2011.

VA photo by Robert Turtil
Click photo for screen-resolution imageVice President Joe Biden addresses more than 350 disabled veterans, as well as family members, staff and volunteers, at opening ceremonies for the 25th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, Colo., March 27, 2011.

VA photo by Jeff Bowen