The body of a 60-year-old homeless man was found by the train tracks in downtown Killeen last week, a victim of a drug overdose, police said.
His wife, who was found next to him with a near-lethal amount of blood pressure medication in her body, said her husband, Larry Pittman of Blakely, Ga., was the victim of an overtaxed system.
What drove Larry Pittman over the edge was desperation — felt by many disabled veterans — that his disability compensation claim would never make it through the Department of Veterans Affairs, said his wife, Penny Pittman, 49.
Larry Pittman, a decorated Vietnam veteran, served in both the Army and the Navy for a total of 14 years, according to his Department of Defense form 214.
After joining the Army when he was 18, Pittman worked in transportation for the Army during the Vietnam War, earning the Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry and other honors.
He was honorably discharged from the Navy as a second class petty officer in 1985. His last assignment was aboard the USS Belknap, a guided missile cruiser.
What wasn’t mentioned on his DOD form were the health problems he suffered following his time in the military: hearing loss, post-traumatic stress disorder, heart disease and skin cancer from exposure to Agent Orange. A VA document, provided to the Herald by Penny Pittman, said the VA was in the process of determining if any of those ailments began when Pittman was in the military.
In early 2012, Pittman applied through the VA for disability compensation for his injuries. More than a year later, he was homeless and still waiting for the claim to be processed, his wife said.
The immense backlog of VA claims has impacted many veterans.
The Waco office, where Pittman’s claim was sent, is one of the largest VA offices in the country. It also has the second-highest number of pending claims in the country, according to the Austin American-Statesman.
Currently, 43,104 claims remain undecided at the Waco office, down from 51,875 in July 2012, according to the office of U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock. More than 32,603 — 75.6 percent — of the claims at the Waco office have been pending for more than 125 days.
“The backlog with the VA system is unacceptable,” Carter said in an email. “Our veterans gave their commitment to this country when they took the oath to join the military. We have failed to reciprocate that commitment by making it nearly impossible for many of them to get help, medicine, appointments, benefits and services they need.”
Despite the mounting backlog, some headway has been made in the past year. The VA reduced the number of backlog claims by more than 65,000 nationwide through an overtime initiative started in April, according to a report this week.
Out of work
Pittman held several jobs after the Army, including a position at Lockheed Martin, Penny Pittman said. However, psychological issues brought back from the war haunted him and made it difficult for him to keep a job. The couple moved to Killeen because Pittman’s son, Blakely Pittman, was stationed at Fort Hood. But soon after, the son was sent to South Korea. Unable to find work, Larry and Penny Pittman lost their Killeen apartment in December, she said.
The couple lived through the winter under the bridge at Long Branch Park, and homelessness began to take its toll on Pittman’s body. He suffered several mini-strokes during the past six months, according to hospital records.
“When we were homeless, his blood pressure got worse,” Pittman said.
Larry Pittman continued to contact the VA to check on his compensation claim, which he filed the year before, according to his wife.
Tom Morley, a spokesman for the Waco VA office, said it did not receive Pittman’s claim until February. Morley said Pittman’s disability case was about to be rated at the time of his death.
Morley also said there is no backlog for homeless veterans, which are given fast-track status. But the Pittmans became homeless after the claim was filed.
“We were at the VA two or three times a week,” Penny Pittman said. “We lived there.”
On June 10, after getting news of further delays on his claim, Pittman chose to end his life, Penny Pittman said.
“We were downtown and I was trying to get a hold of the VA,” she said. “He said, ‘Penny I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to leave you with this but I can’t do this anymore.’”
That afternoon, the couple made a pact to commit suicide together, she said. “I said, ‘I don’t want to do this without you. I don’t want to go through this alone,’ And now I am here and he’s not here.”