They fought for our country and came back home to Houston with permanent injuries. So why is it taking years in many cases for these veterans to receive the disability benefits they deserve?
Local 2 Investigates has discovered veterans using the Veterans Administration office in Houston are waiting twice as long as they did back in 2007 for those benefits to be processed.
"I understand there's limited personnel, but it really is a slap in the face," said Ricardo Curtis, a former U.S. Marine who served three tours in Iraq. "It's pretty much blatant disrespect."
In Iraq, Curtis' team operated 16,000-pound Howitzers and he came back home with injuries because of it. Curtis says he had four concussions, a reconstructed knee and still fights post-traumatic stress disorder.
But he says his most frustrating battle was fighting to get the disability benefits he earned. It took almost three years for the VA to process his disability claim, 1,034 days to be paid for his service and sacrifice.
"I submitted the documents four times," Curtis, a current University of Houston student, said. "That's senseless. It's a government agency. I really can't understand that."
Curtis isn't alone. Right now, there are more than 400,000 veterans nationwide who have been waiting more than 125 days for the VA to process their disability claims. Those veterans served in many different conflicts -- from Iraq and Afghanistan to Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War.
Local 2 Investigates helped expose the VA claims backlog in 2007. Back then, veterans in Houston waited an average of 209 days for their claims. Many of those waiting were Purple Heart recipients. The problem was deemed so bad, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison helped get a management team to look into problems at the Houston VA office.
Now, six years later, the problem isn't better, it's worse. Houston veterans are now waiting an average of 446 days. That's more than twice as long as they did in 2007.
This summer, Local 2 Investigates requested interviews with the director of the Houston VA office or anyone else at the VA who could provide answers. A VA representative said no one was available to interview. So investigator Bill Spencer went to the Houston VA office in person.
"Somebody has to be able to talk with us," Spencer said to a VA facilities employee who stopped him at the entrance. "We're not going to take no for an answer."
"If you exit the building, I will be more than happy to go to the director's office," the employee said.
However, instead of the director, the Local 2 Investigates crew was greeted by Veterans Affairs' police officers.
"They just kicked you out," Hubert Jno-Finn told Spencer outside the VA office.
Jno-Finn is a former Army sergeant who watched the incident from inside the VA facility. He was one of around 12 veterans who were waiting to speak with VA representatives about their disability claims.
"We were pretty angry they kicked you out because we've been fighting for someone to try and get us some answers," Jno-Finn told Spencer. "I've been waiting more than 15 months for my claim."
Local 2 Investigates then went to the top of the VA for answers. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a disabled veteran himself, spoke to the American Legion convention in Houston in August.
"Let me be clear, no veteran should have to wait to receive earned benefits," Shinseki said during his speech. "The President wants this fixed. We're on track to eliminate the backlog in 2015."
Local 2 Investigates waited backstage for Shinseki following his speech. However, after his staff asked Spencer what questions he was asking, Shinseki and his staffed dodged Local 2's cameras. In fact, Shinseki's security force moved his exit from a side street near the George R. Brown Convention Center to an area behind a locked gate near the GRB's loading dock.
The security staff jockeyed three different black vehicles around the area. Eventually, Shinseki left in a vehicle that came into to the loading dock, avoiding any questions.
Just hours later, representatives from Houston's VA office agreed to an interview.
"These are veterans who have served their country and they have sacrificed their bodies," Spencer told Houston VA director Pritz Navaratnasingam. "They want answers of why it's taking so long. What do you say to them," Spencer asked.
"I want to say our mission here is to serve veterans timely and expeditiously," Navaratnasingam answered. "We have a great secretary who has helped us embark on a transformation of how we serve veterans."
Navaratnasingam says the VA claims backlog has grown because more injured vets are returning home combined with a decision to recognize more injuries and diseases as disabilities. He says a computerized claims system is the key to fixing the problem and believes that system is already working.
"In Houston, in the last seven months, we've reduced our backlog by 20 percent," said Navaratnasingam. "Great work is being done by our employees, many of whom are veterans serving veterans."
"The system is broken," said Curtis.
Veterans like Curtis have already paid the price. They still wonder when the waiting game will really end.
If you are a veteran who needs help with a disability claim, here are some helpful links: