WASHINGTON, November 12 - Veterans Day, which we formally mark today, is a time for reflection. It is a time for honoring the men and women who have risked their lives in far-flung corners of the world to defend our freedom.
It is a time for remembering our obligations to those warriors when they come home. I’ll be thinking of the late George O’Brien Jr., an extraordinary Marine from Big Spring, who received America’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, for his selfless heroism in Korea. I’ll also be thinking of another remarkable Marine, recently deceased Treto Garza, who served in Vietnam and devoted the rest of his life to improving veterans’ health care in the Rio Grande Valley.
And I’ll definitely be thinking of San Antonio’s Todd Nelson, a retired U.S. Army master sergeant who endured more than 40 reconstructive and lifesaving surgeries after his convoy was attacked by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, and who now recruits wounded veterans to work at USAA.
I was proud to call Garza a friend, and I was lucky enough to meet Nelson earlier this year. As for O’Brien, I was privileged to attend the January 2012 ceremony at which the Big Spring Veterans Affairs Medical Center was officially renamed in his honor.
Each understood that courageous veterans often return from war carrying physical, psychological and emotional injuries. That’s what inspired O’Brien, Garza and Nelson to spend so much time helping our wounded warriors.
Unfortunately, the massive backlog of VA disability claims reminds us that far too many veterans are being underserved. This is a national disgrace, and I have expressed my outrage to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and called on him to resolve the crisis.
Veterans with pending claims deserve more than just rhetoric from VA headquarters in Washington. They deserve swift action. Our veterans fulfilled their solemn duties. It’s about time the VA did the same. The disability-claims backlog in Texas is particularly immense because we’re home to more veterans than any state except California.
As of Oct. 22, there were more than 49,000 claims pending at the Waco VA Regional Office, the highest total nationwide. The vast majority had been pending for more than 125 days. Meanwhile, there were nearly 38,000 disability claims pending at the Houston VA Regional Office, the fourth-highest total nationwide. Once again, most had been pending for more than 125 days.
Consider the story of Brownsville resident Jorge Vallejo, a former Marine who suffers from spinal nerve compression. Despite the severity of his condition, which makes it very difficult for him to work, Vallejo was only receiving 30 percent disability from the VA. In hopes of providing for his wife and children, he tried repeatedly to secure his rightful compensation. When these efforts failed, he turned to my office for help. After much wrangling with the VA, we were able to get Vallejo his full benefits.
Sadly, his ordeal is not an anomaly: Thousands of Texas veterans have experienced similar frustrations.
This past summer, the Texas Veterans Commission announced a $1.5 million initiative to help clear out the disability-claims backlog. Thomas Palladino, the executive director, called it “one of the boldest and most meaningful actions to help Texas veterans and their families in the history of the state.”
I look forward to working with Texas and VA officials to make sure this initiative is successful. Our veterans have shown tremendous devotion to America. They deserve the same from their government and should receive their legitimate benefits and medical care in a timely fashion.
Anything less is unacceptable.
John Cornyn is U.S. Senator for Texas. He is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The above column first appeared in the Waco Tribune-Herald.