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Veterans Expo Offers Support in Fight Against Benefit Backlog

KUT News

The theme of this year's Texas Veterans' Expo was simple: Answering the call.

But meeting that call has been difficult.

The Texas Veterans Commission's job is to connect veterans with benefits. But the TVC's Executive Director Thomas Palladino said disabled veterans in this state have had a hard time getting their requests answered.

"Claims used to be processed in about 120 days," Palladino said. "Now it takes almost 2 years for the VA to process a claim. The reason is because they're using an antiquated system, which goes back to the Korean War. It's a paper system. "

Palladino said about 100 officers handle the backlog, which has ballooned to 68,000 since 2010.

In July the state created a so-called "strike force team" to clear up the backlog. Palladino said it's processed 11,000 claims in 5 months and sent thousands to the Department of Veteran's Affairs for approval.

"No other state is doing this, they're just waiting for the VA to solve the problem, but they're not solving the problem," Palladino said.

Former Marine Sergeant Darryl Atkins said he's been waiting a year and a half for his disability benefits. He retired in December of 2011.

At 6-foot-4, the broad-shouldered Atkins walks with a swagger and didn't look like a veteran who had been collecting disability, but during his retirement physical Atkins was told he had a brain tumor.

"So the tumor's not gone," Atkins said. "I've got tinnitus in my ear. I've lost 40 percent of my hearing, so I can't hear."

He's also diabetic and suffers from post-traumatic stress — all of which he shrugs off jokingly.

"I'm telling you, man, I'm all jacked up," Atkins said.

Atkins served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but retired while stationed in Okinawa, Japan. Because he wasn't stationed at a base in the states, his case was given to the regional office in Pittsburgh

Winston Cover said that is common at the federal level. He is a Vietnam veteran and a case worker for the Texas Veterans Commission.

"Someone who is not military, has no military experience, doesn't know those. It slows down the process," Cover said.

Because of he is currently unemployed, Atkins and his wife can't apply for a home loan. They're living with her family in Killeen.

"My retirement's like $3,500. If they told me I was 70 percent disabled, we could get a loan for a house right now," said Atkins. "They haven't even given me a finding. That's the problem."

Atkins said the Veterans Expo gave him hope that he might actually have found a way to get his disability.

The Texas Veterans Commission is seeking another $2 million from the Texas Legislature to hire more case workers.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.