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Oct 26, 2012 4:25 PM by Samantha Ptashkin

Tucson vet one of thousands caught up in VA benefit backlog

TUCSON- When Paul Machado looks at the American flag, the colors are sometimes tainted by frustration.

"It's frustrating because you serve so long and give so much to your country and then it kinda craps on you like this," Machado says.

Machado served 15 years in the military. He deployed three times to Iraq and three times to Afghanistan. "I've lost a lot of teammates, a lot of guys that I've been deployed with already," Machado says. "I lost two more guys this last year."

On top of dealing with all the grief, he says he returned from war with a string of health problems.

He has constant ringing in his ear, arthritis in his knees, back and shoulder, and says he suffers from a traumatic brain injury, among several other conditions. "You have a lot of memory issues, a lot of different conditions you normally take for granted," Machado says.

He filed dozens of claims with the Regional Veterans Affairs office up in Phoenix. That is where all claims from Arizona veterans are processed. The least amount of time it took to process one of Machado's claims was 98 days, the most time it took was 508 days.

Two of Machado's claims are still pending. "A military term we always use is "hurry up and wait"," Machado says. "It's the same thing with the VA, you gotta hurry up and wait."

Sanda Flint of the VA Regional Office in Phoenix, where more than half of the employees are vets themselves, tells News 4 Tucson Machado's claims are among more than half a million caught up in a massive benefit backlog across all 56 regional VA offices.

"I can tell you I'm not happy about it. I can tell you from the highest offices in the VA nobody is happy about it," Flint says. "We do not take any pleasure in having our veterans having to wait as long as they have."

Flint says one reason for the holdup in Phoenix is because they just finished processing Agent Orange claims from Vietnam Veterans. A couple years ago a change in regulation made it possible for vets to finally file those claims. "It's because we were focused on those, we were not able to focus on what I'll say is the heart of our work, which is our regular claims process," Flint says.

Another reason for the delay is all VA offices are in the process of switching files from paper to an electronic system. "I know they're undermanned and underfunded," Machado says.

Still, it's difficult.

Machado has three children and says he can't work right now because of disabilities. The VA has awarded him 40% of his claims, a total of $560 per month.

But he says this isn't all about the money, or even the wait. "I never expected it. I expected to be taken care of."

Last month the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, announced the VA is making it a top priority to process all claims in 125 days or less. He also hopes to eliminate the backlog by 2015.

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