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Veterans' benefits

Published July 2, 2013 5:18 pm

Who shall have bourne the battle
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

With just about every day bringing the 150th anniversary of some Civil War milestone — this week's remembrance of the Battle of Gettysburg prime among them — it is even more fitting and proper that the nation that rose out of that conflict should remember its obligation to its veterans.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln saw past the war and to a time of peace and reconciliation. Among his charges to the nation were that it should "bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."

These days, such is the responsibility of the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is a large bureaucracy, to be sure, but not large enough, or efficient enough, to keep pace with the demands placed upon it by the flood of applications for benefits and services created by a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The backlog for veterans benefits claims rose 98 percent nationally — and 343 percent for the Salt Lake City VA Regional Office — over the three years that ended last Jan. 7. That's according to numbers teased out by The Center for Investigative Reporting and analyzed by The Salt Lake Tribune.

The horribly slow pace of processing claims is a shame, not just for the VA, or for the government, but for the nation as a whole. It is also a prime, and painful, example of what happens when a nation goes to war, or to two wars, without thinking through the long-term consequences, human, fiscal and bureaucratic.

People who need and deserve the nation's assistance, those who sacrificed their youth, their health, their capacity to make an independent living, have been going without the aid they have earned. The resulting stress has harmed not only the veterans, but their spouses and children, as bills go unpaid, educational opportunities go unrealized and households sometimes break up under the strain.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki visited Salt Lake City last week. He promised that the system would be improved and that backlogs would be reduced. He also noted that the Salt Lake office had been handed a particularly heavy workload, dealing with all recently separated veterans from west of the Mississippi, and that a pilot program for a new automated processing system had been tested here and appeared up to the challenge.

We can only hope. Leaving all the hims — and, now, hers — who have bourne our 21st century battles without the services they have earned for so long is simply not acceptable.