News 12 Investigates: Getting Answers for Our Vets

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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) – Conversation is always lively just outside Robert Monkelban’s garage.

Four veterans trade laughs underneath the flag, trading war stories, and personal battles they continue to fight as civilians.

The younger and more serious face in the room, Matthew Sanders, a soldier in the War in Afghanistan.

The day and time an IED changed his life.

“Everybody in the truck was hit; four soldiers, one interpreter, but nobody was killed.”

His leg injury is a critical reminder of both physical and emotional pain.

“I can hear them screaming saying this hurts, that hurts.”

But Sanders says the office of Veterans Affairs doesn’t see his pain as a big deal. It’s the place you file for benefits for injuries like this.

“It’s really severe. It came back and they gave me a 10% disability for it… I had people say they get 10% for shin splints, high blood pressure, severely sprained ankle, so I sent it back and appealed it. It came back the same… I just take it as complete disrespect. I mean ungrateful.”

“With the VA, they give veterans a second chance to die for their country.” – Matthew Sanders, Veteran

All four say they’ve hit similar roadblocks with the VA

“I was getting 70% disability on my back and neck from jumping out of, I can’t even tell you how many airplanes,” said Robert Monkelban, “They say I have three claims in. One from January 7, 2014 where they say I could never work again. The VA. Unemployable… In 2016, I have a claim in for the same thing. In 2017, I have a claim in for the same thing. I just got from the VA yesterday and they have a script that they read from, alright, and it says, oh yeah the claim is in. It’s going to take 394 days for it, average. I don’t know how you add but this disability is backing up into 2013, is that 394 days? This is what they are doing to us. They don’t care, they really don’t care.”

Even the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs admits, veterans who appeal on average have to wait three years. Those who appeal again can wait as long as six years.

The number of pending appeals is rising. Between 2015 and 2017, 90,000 more pending appeals.

“Somebody ought to do something about that, and that’s what we’ve done.”

Senator Johnny Isakson says one of the worst cases, an appeal that’s been dragging on for 25 years now.

“Why couldn’t we make a decision in 25 years? And the answer, the veteran that filed the appeal, if he didn’t think he was going to get the answer he wanted he would file an additional piece of information and reopen the case.”

Meaning, the whole process goes back to square one, adding years to the process.

“So, what we did with this legislation is give veterans to choose a faster route.”

Sen. Isakson says the new law will give veterans three paths to a quicker answer.
The first is a higher-level review by a regional office on the same evidence you’ve already given to the VA.

The second, filing a supplemental claim with a regional office. Adding new evidence without starting their case all over again.

Finally, appealing directly to the Board of Veterans Appeals. Giving another opportunity to add evidence and possibly speak at a hearing.

“The requirements for our soldiers are so great and they are spread so thin. When I had the chance to serve the Veterans Committee, I wanted to pay them back for all they have done for us and this country.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has 18 months to make it happen… So these changes aren’t available to veterans, like these four, until at least February 2019.

“What are you waiting for me to die?” questions Monkelban.

The VA has been under a lot of congressional pressure, so what’s the deal with the backlog? The VA states the current appeals process has no options for early resolution and mandates the VA to assist throughout the entire process.