Al Sherrouse wants the Department of Veterans Affairs to step up like he did during the Vietnam War.
“I wasn’t drafted. I volunteered,” he said. “I want them to step up to the plate. I did.”
The 65-year-old Copperas Cove resident served in the Army for six years, including two tours in Vietnam. He said he was spit on when he returned to San Francisco from Vietnam and he receives no better reception at the VA today.
“All I’m asking for is a fair assessment,” he said. “I did everything they asked.”
Sherrouse is considered 30 percent disabled — due to ischaemic heart disease — by the VA, but began efforts about seven years ago to get his rating increased. His claim included documentation linking chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and sleep apnea to his heart disease, and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Two years ago, the VA Regional Office in Waco requested medical testing to complete his claim. They sent him to Metroplex Adventist Hospital in Killeen, then to a doctor in Round Rock to read the results of an echocardiogram and electrocardiogram.
“(The doctor) rated it as 100 percent and sent it to the Waco VA. ... I have a letter from them saying I’m not supposed to be working,” Sherrouse said. “They decided not to recognize it.”
Now Sherrouse is meeting with Willie Browning, a volunteer veterans service officer, to get his claim through.
‘No one’s accountable’
Every 90 days or so, he gets a letter in the mail asking for his patience as the VA continues to process his claim. The most recent letter is dated June 30.
“No one’s accountable,” Sherrouse said. “You don’t know who’s looking at your case.”
Over the past year, the Waco regional office has made strides to cut the backlog of claims. The current wait time for a rating is 252 days — that’s down from 455.7 days in fiscal year 2013, said John S. Limpose, director of the Waco office.
Volunteers such as Browning contribute to reducing that number by helping veterans and survivors prepare and file fully developed claims.
The Waco office’s inventory of these claims increased from 1.2 percent in October 2012, to 33.8 percent today.
“The (fully developed claim) program is an optional new initiative that offers veterans and survivors faster decisions from VA on compensation, pension and survivor benefit claims,” Limpose said in an emailed statement.
“For (fully developed claims), veterans and survivors simply submit all relevant records in their possession, and those records which are easily obtainable, such as private medical records, at the time they make their claim; and certify that they have no further evidence to submit. VA can then review and process the claim more quickly.”
Browning, a 20-year retiree of the Army, got into volunteering for veterans following the death of her husband about a decade ago.
“I really needed a reason to get out of bed,” she said. “The first claim I submitted was my own claim for widow’s benefits.”
Since then, Browning estimated she’s helped about 25,000 people with claims. She can be found at the Harker Heights Vet Center three times a week, where people line up in the early morning to be one of the 10 to see her. She also has “breakfast” once a week at the Heights’ American Legion, where veterans will seek her out with binders of paperwork.
Elizabeth Nurse, of Kempner, used Browning’s help, and on July 10, she brought her sister to meet her. The pair got in line at the Vet Center at 4:13 a.m.
“She’s proactive,” Nurse said of Browning. “She’s a make-things-happen kind of person.”
Nurse said it took multiple visits with Browning, but eventually she got her benefits approved.
Browning doesn’t blame the backlog on VA employees, but rather a broken system.
“The bottom line is ... the backlog is horrendous and they say, ‘We’re fixing the system.’ It sure don’t look like it here where the rubber meets the road,” she said. “The backlog is what’s killing folks like Al. Maybe one day his records will make it to the top of the stack. Hopefully, he will not have died before then.”
Waiting for a claim to go through doesn’t just deny veterans life-saving treatment and a monthly income; it also keeps them out of work.
Charles Partain, 49, retired out of Fort Hood in December and has struggled since then to find employment. If he had his disability rating from the VA, he would be eligible for more jobs and even get preference for government positions. It also would give him access to job training programs.
“I knew it would take some time,” Partain said. But he hadn’t planned financially for this many setbacks, and his family of five faces eviction.
Unable to get 31 years worth of Army medical records before his separation date, he couldn’t file his claim with the VA until April.
“I’ve gone to every resource I’m pointed to,” Partain said. “I maxed out my Army Emergency Relief loans. ... I just don’t know where else to turn.”
While the income would improve Partain’s life, Browning said for most veterans it’s about access to care.
“They need care. Particularly these older folks who have no other medical care,” she said. “For me, it’s getting them what they’ve earned from the VA. I’ll move hell and half of Georgia to make sure they get it.”