GUY RAZ, HOST:
Returning now to veterans on this Memorial Day weekend. Close to one out of two veterans who've served in Iraq or Afghanistan have now filed disability claims for service-related injuries - everything from hearing loss and back problems to mental health claims like PTSD. The percentage of vets making claims now is more than double the rate of previous wars. The total cost could eventually come to close to a trillion dollars.
Marilynn Marchione of the Associated Press reported on the staggering increase and what might explain it.
MARILYNN MARCHIONE: For one thing, the government and veterans advocates alike believe that the economy is playing some role, that some people who may have been able to work with a mild disability might be more motivated now to seek a benefit if they can't find a job or if they've lost a job.
RAZ: You write that on average, new veterans are claiming eight to nine ailments. By comparison, in Vietnam, veterans who sought compensation claims, fewer than four. World War II, just two ailments on average.
MARCHIONE: And it's not like the parts of the body have changed. The nature of warfare has changed, though. Most of these injuries have resulted from bomb blasts. And things like TBI and post-traumatic stress, PTSD, are very common after these bomb blasts. More than 95 percent of troops that were injured in these wars have survived their wounds, and that's just unheard of.
RAZ: We're talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, of course.
MARCHIONE: That's right, Iraq and Afghanistan. And it is partly in thanks to this better shielding body armor and also better battlefield care that they're surviving these injuries. But it's caused a ton of orthopedic injuries. Now, many of them need knee, shoulder, back surgeries when they come home.
RAZ: Is there a sense of how long it now takes before your claim is considered and resolved? I mean, if you just got back from Afghanistan or Iraq and you've been honorably discharged and you put in a claim, how long is it going to take before it's considered?
MARCHIONE: That's a tremendous issue for veterans, and it varies all over the country. The national average right now is almost eight months, roughly eight months, to get a new claim handled. But it varies tremendously in different parts of the country. And a veteran can wait as short as 90 to 120 days in some of the demonstration and the rapid transition programs that are available. Others can languish for years.
RAZ: You write that nobody in the government anticipated this, anticipated that claims would be so high. There is no special fund set aside to pay for these claims. So how will they be paid for?
MARCHIONE: Well, the VA has had an increase in their budget, but it is vastly dwarfed by the number of claims coming in the door on top of a number of new claims that they had to handle because of changes in what conditions could be considered related to Agent Orange. So that brought them another quarter of a million additional claims last year alone from Vietnam veterans, some of these going back 50 years, very complicated cases.
And they had to take those in along with the new claims from the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and deal with those all together. And they were already running way behind.
RAZ: That's Marilynn Marchione. She's the chief medical writer for the Associated Press, talking about her story that broke today about veterans and war disability claims. Marilynn, thank you so much.
MARCHIONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.