Ohio Veterans face another battle when they come home from war. They're fighting to get the pension and benefits they earned. But as 10 Investigates is exposing, they still face years of delays from the Veterans Administration. 10 Investigates found some veterans resorting to desperate measures.
Injuries, both mental and physical, often prevent veterans from getting jobs. The number that can determine how an injured veteran lives is their disability percentage. A high score can mean a life of care and recovery. A low score can mean a life of poverty and homelessness.
Robert Sprague of Mansfield, only has one picture of his time in Vietnam. By the time the picture with Sprague making a peace sign with his hand was taken, Sprague had joined the peace movement. It was because of the things he saw in the Army.
"You really want me to tell you what I saw?” said Sprague. “Stacks of body bags full. People getting off the choppers all shot to hell."
Sprague faced multiple health problems after Vietnam. Crippling back pain, and a rage that seemed to bring back the horrors of the past. "In my old age, I don't have the nightmares regular like I used to," said Sprague.
The one person who held back those nightmares is Robert's wife Jenny. For a while, Robert and Jenny Sprague were homeless, living in the back of a former antique store in Mansfield.
The Spragues bought a home in Mansfield after Robert's military pension check went up to $1,360 a month. But when Jenny turned 65 and started to collect Social Security, Robert stood to lose his VA disability pension.
Jenny Sprague explained what they did next,: “I said, we'll get a divorce. I'll get my social security and you'll get your pension."
The Spragues still live together, still call each other husband and wife, and still fight to keep Robert's disability pension to the level they believe he deserves. A small bump in the percentage the VA considers a veteran as disabled can mean enormous difference in how that veteran makes ends meet. Sprague is considered 40% disabled for PTSD and hearing loss after surviving a exploding mortar round.
In a letter, the VA says they have no evidence of Sprague slamming into a vehicle during a parachute jump which led to his crippling back pain. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald pledges to clear the backlog of veterans benefits claims by the end of the year. But that clearance also includes rejecting veterans claims.
"About 11% of veterans appeal our decision. That percentage has stayed relatively constant over a period of time, but the number of claims we're getting each day is much higher," said Secretary McDonald during a visit to the Columbus VA Clinic.
Robert Sprague can't prove his case to the VA because of a lack of evidence. After all, he doesn't have much to show for his time in Vietnam. No medical documents, just one picture, and a lifetime of nightmares and pain.
10 Investigates analyzed how long it takes for the VA to clear veterans claims. The VA has a goal of processing claims in 125 days. According to the VA, it takes an average of 138.1 days to process a claim in Ohio. But if the claim does not involve a disability rating - that wait in Ohio is 523.8 days. That's among the longest waits in the country.