Returning home from war is challenging for veterans on many levels. Now there is another bureaucratic obstacle: major delays on receiving benefits like pensions and healthcare.
Charles Mangarella always spoke fondly of serving in the Navy and defending his country.
"He was on the Birmingham, then he went to the Midway. He was in the engine room," recalls Charlie Mangarella, Jr., the son of Navy veteran Charles Mangarella.
As a member of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ Mangarella’s son says his father was a quiet sailor who entered World War II at 21 years old. He served for three years before returning home in 1946.
Over the past few years, Mangarella has received benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs to defray daily costs at his nursing home, where he is treated for Alzheimer’s.
"His benefit is not a huge benefit,” said son Mangarella. “It's 90 dollars a month but it's great for when he needs eyeglasses or razorblades.”
However, this year, Mangarella’s benefits suddenly stopped. The V.A. claimed it sent a renewal form but his son says the family never received it. When he finally received the form to reapply, they were blindsided.
"They say, ‘Oh I'm sorry, we work from a pile system. We start at the top of the pile and go down and once we're done with the pile, we get to your father's application and we'll process it. The average wait is 11 months,’” Mangarella recalled. “And he's already waited 7 months.”
The reason for this wait is most likely the stacks and stack of veterans’ applications piled up in regional V.A. offices across the country. Filing cabinets bulge and boxes overflow in locations including Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Photos of this backlog appeared in a recent U.S. Inspector General audit of the Veterans Benefits Administration.
"You risk your life for your country and then your country says you're in the pile,” Mangarella’s son said. “That's not the way you treat people. You don't throw them in a pile."
The V.A. says claims are supposed to be evaluated within 125 days. After being told the wait was actually 11 months, Mangarella’s son Charlie turned to Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) for help. Suddenly, his father’s application was expedited and approved.
“This kind of bureaucratic runaround and delay is absolutely unconscionable,” Blumenthal told NBC Connecticut. “I’m proud to fight for any veteran who needs help but that help outta be forthcoming without calling a United States senator.”
According to the CT Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 1,000 Connecticut veterans are currently waiting for benefits that are long overdue. The number of veterans in the state who have experienced lengthy waits for renewal is unknown. Nationally, more than 66% of benefit applications are not processed within the 125 day window.
Commissioner of the state Department of Veterans Affairs Dr. Linda Schwartz served in Vietnam. She called the federal system "antiquated."
“I think it is a good picture of what goes on, look at how disorganized it is," Schwartz said.
According to Schwartz, the paper system was never effective to begin with. The return of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans has overwhelmed it.
“It is really kind of a shockwave to the people who have been in Washington, with this bureaucracy, that they've got to step up, and step up the pace for this new generation,” said Schwartz.
“The long term vision is to convert those piles of paper to digital files,” Blumenthal added. “So that they can be moved more quickly and they can make sure info flows more smoothly and is addressed more quickly.”
A spokesperson for the federal Department of Veterans Affairs says these changes have already begun.
"The VA is building a strong foundation for a paperless, digital disability claims system - a lasting solution that will transform how we operate and eliminate the claims backlog,”
However, that overhaul may not be realized in time for veterans like Mangarella who need help now.
"He won't forget the war,” Mangarella says of his father. “He won't forget serving in the navy or going into battle."
His family hopes that one day no more veterans who have returned home heroes will be left behind.