It had taken a while, but Army Staff Sgt. Sam Shockley had meticulously compiled a list of all of his war wounds, including his diminished memory, only to leave it sitting in his bedroom as he went rushing off to his appointment.
There was no time to go back and grab it. He would have to do the best he could.
“We’ll start from the head and work our way to the bottom,” Shockley told Reggie Washburn, a Department of Veterans Affairs benefits counselor who in the next few hours would help Shockley figure out the true cost of his war. “As long as I go from head to toe I’m pretty sure I’ll remember all my points.”
One year earlier, Shockley, then 25, was leading his squad through a field in southern Afghanistan when he stepped on a buried bomb that shot him into the air and sheared off his legs. Now, after 40 surgeries, he had come to the small VA office at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to start the process that would determine the monthly disability payments that he’ll receive for the rest of his life.
War can be a series of cold calculations: the distance a bullet travels, the blast radius of a bomb, the number of minutes it takes to reach a soldier bleeding out on the battlefield. For wounded troops leaving the military, there is one more: the price paid for a broken body, a missing limb, a lost eye, a damaged brain.
The longest stretch of fighting in American history is producing disability claims at rates that surpass those of any of the country’s previous wars. Nearly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are filing for these benefits when they leave the military — a flood of claims that has overwhelmed the VA and generated a backlog of 300,000 cases stuck in processing for more than 125 days. Some have languished for more than a year.
“We’re not where we need to be,” President Obama has said of the glut, which peaked last year at 611,000 claims. “But we’re making progress.” The backlog has become one of several issues that have drawn the ire of veterans and lawmakers, leading to calls for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.
How do you solve a problem that has been called a “national embarrassment,” “a mess,” and yet another instance of Washington “bureaucracy run amok”? If the backlog is going to be fixed, the solution will come one soldier at a time in small offices such as this one at Walter Reed.
“So we’ll start with the head portion,” Shockley said. “I know I had a ruptured eardrum.”
“Is that the right ear?” asked Washburn. He sat behind a metal government-issue desk with a window overlooking Tranquility Hall, the dorm where Shockley lives with his fiancee while he learns how to walk on prosthetic legs and rehabilitates his body.
“Left ear,” Shockley said. “It was a perforation.”
Computer keys clacked as Washburn logged the information. A big cardboard box containing Shockley’s medical records rested on the floor behind Washburn’s desk.
“I guess we’ll move on,” Shockley said. “Concussion, obviously from the blast.”