TULSA - Thousands of Green Country veterans are waiting on money from the government, a wait that in some cases is taking more than a year.
Sam Slavens remembers his time in the U.S. military like it was yesterday.
"I first enlisted in the Navy in 1969," he said. "I was a junior in high school at Collinsville and the Navy needed people in Vietnam. I figured it was my time to go and serve my country, so that 's where I went."
Sam re-enlisted several times, devoting 21 years to his country. But now, that same country he fought so hard to keep safe is letting him down.
"I filed my last claim with the VA in March of 2012," he said.
Thirteen months later and he still hasn't received an answer.
"If you send someone to put their life on the line for you than you owe them the due diligence when they come back," said Sam.
At the VA Regional office in Muskogee, about 13,000 vets are waiting on their claims; the average wait time in Muskogee is almost 200 days.
But the nationwide numbers are even worse.
Click on the map to see how Oklahoma compares to other states (mobile users should click http://bit.ly/ZXe5LA to see the data).
More than 850,000 vets are waiting on claims, with 244,000 of them already waiting at least one year. So we went to Washington to find out why.
"Taking care of the people who take care of us is a critically important thing," said U.S. Congressman Jim Bridenstine.
As a veteran himself, Bridenstine says the backlog is unacceptable, but believes there is a reason for it.
"We have a lot of troops recently home from Iraq and a lot of troops coming home from Afghanistan," he said.
Still Bridenstine says, it's not an excuse. "We have to have systems in place that enable the processing of these claims to be more efficient."
The Muskogee VA Regional office is currently implementing the new paperless processing system, and should be fully paperless by the end of 2013.
In a statement we were told:
"The Muskogee VA Regional office is in position... of having no claims pending greater than 125 days by 2015."
We asked the VA what was holding up Sam's claim. They explained, like most claims that come through, Sam's has several possible disabilities attached to it. Until each individual disability is decided upon the claim remains open.
According to the VA, the hold up on his claim has to do with proving his inability to work.
"The regional office is seeking information from Mr. Slavens' former employer .... in support of his claim for individual unemployability," as were told in the VA statement.
They could not give us an estimated time for completion.
And for someone who has already lost two relatives also waiting on their claims, Sam just hopes he gets an answer before it's too late.
"I still feel honored I had the opportunity to serve my country. I would do it again in a minute" he said.
The 2NEWS Problem Solvers will continue to track Sam's claim until he gets his benefits.
On April 19, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced it is implementing an initiative to expedite compensation claims decisions for veterans who have waited a year or longer. Those claims will be moved to the front of the list. Phone readers should click this link http://1.usa.gov/12dSCiw to read the announcement.
Bridenstine wants all veterans to know he is dedicated to helping. You can contact his District office in Tulsa at 918-935-3222. Congressman Bridenstine will hold a Town Hall May 2 at noon at the NSU campus in Broken Arrow. He will discuss recent events in Washington D.C. with constituents of the First District and answering questions.
Congressman Markwayne Mullin had this to say about the Veteran claims backlog:
“I believe that our country must honor its commitments to our veterans and service members. Part of honoring that commitment is to ensure the timely processing of veterans claims.
The reported backlog is troubling and I will inquire into what is being done to address these claims in both Oklahoma and nationwide. I am glad to see that the VA will be expediting compensation claims decisions for veterans who have waited one year or longer.
I have had the privilege of touring the Muskogee VA and meeting with the director. I know their dedicated staffers are working hard to process claims quickly.
As a businessman, I know that it is always necessary to look for ways to serve customers more effectively and efficiently. The VA is no different and they must find ways to serve an ever-expanding group of customers more quickly. I will continue to monitor those efforts and remain in contact with the VA officials in the Second District.”
To contact Congressman Mullin, call 918-351-8700.
U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe says the backlog is unacceptable.
"It is frustrating to me because I am right in the middle of it, I'm the guy who goes to Walter Reed Hospital and visits the kids who lost limbs anticipating how they will be taken care of once they fall into the veteran status and that