Editor’s note: This story was originally published in November 2013.
INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Some veterans are fighting to their graves, not living to see benefits promised to them as young troops.
I-Team 8 found many veterans in this position, including one who served for decades in the U.S. Army.
SHELTON HICKERSON’S BENEFIT BATTLE
Sgt. 1st Class Shelton Hickerson was a drill sergeant in the U.S. Army. Active duty for 21 years, he was sent twice into combat in Vietnam.
His daughter Sharon Hickerson Thurman says she remembers how the neighborhood was scared of her dad because of his deep voice.
“They’d say, ‘Hickerson in town,'” she said.
Hickerson returned from Vietnam and had eight strokes — two happened while he was on active duty.
With claims of sickness due to Agent Orange, he battled stage four lung cancer. Agent Orange was used as a defoliant for the U.S. military to remove jungle cover. The chemical was at the center of a number of lawsuits alleging the substance caused cancer and birth defects.
Hickerson spent 13 years fighting for Veterans Affairs benefits only to appeal, be denied and appeal again over and over.
“I felt misled, misguided and lied to,” Thurman said.
The VA finally granted his appeal, awarding 100 percent disability and more than $340,000 to him on the day he died.
The VA then wanted proof he was competent. The family supplied two tests from two doctors, including one from the St. Vincent Hospital Department of Neuropsychology.
During that time, the VA Inspector General investigated the Indianapolis office, finding delays in 41 percent of competency determinations. The office had already been ordered to take “immediate” action within 21 days on these cases. (Source: 2011 VA Inspector General Inspection of the VA Regional Office Indianapolis)
But for Hickerson, it was another year of waiting for the VA, without being granted a competency hearing.
“He’d get on the phone in front of me and say, ‘What is going on with this hold up? You know Shelton Hickerson isn’t going to live that long,'” Thurman said.
Still, they waited another 10 months. On June 27, 2013, Hickerson died.
The day Hickerson died, the VA sent the retroactive benefits letter of $377,342. It came too late, arriving the next day.
I-Team 8 took the issue to the Indianapolis VA office. They declined an on camera interview, only issuing a statement.
On the competency issue: The VA confirms they received their own competency report almost three months before Hickerson died.
“Unfortunately, we did not rate this case prior to the veterans death because the issue was intertwined with several of the veteran’s other claims, and due to our overall workload,” the VA said.
I-Team 8 has learned he is not alone in the fight. The number of veterans who die waiting for benefit claims has skyrocketed in the last few years.
The long wait times means tens of thousands of veterans are approved after it is too late for the money to help them – including those who served in WWII, Vietnam and Iraq.
With his wife deceased and no children under the age of 18, what happens to the money for all these families?
Thurman says the VA caseworker told her, “He said, you know, your father’s dead. Nobody gets the money.”
The VA confirmed to I-Team 8, “the money stays in the treasury.”
According to numbers from Center for Investigative Reporting, if you live in Indianapolis, your wait time and chances you will die first are even worse. The group says Indianapolis is the third slowest VA office in the country. As of Monday, 11,541 were waiting. The average wait time is 612 days.
WASHINGTON, D.C. REACTS
I-Team 8 took the issue to Congressman Andre Carson (D-7th District) and Senator Dan Coats (R-Indiana). Both reacted strongly to the Indianapolis VA backlog in their home state.
“It’s sad, it’s embarrassing,” Carson said.
“This backlog is totally outrageous,” Coats says.
Often, families give up, exhausted after years of filing paperwork and appeals.
Could it be more experienced claims processors would interpret the medical evidence of cases like Hickerson’s differently? It’s an issue found in audits. (Source: Page 4, Board of Veterans Appeals annual report suggests getting better medical training)
Did the VA make a mistake? I-Team 8 reviewed documents from the VA inspector general finding half the claims reviewed had errors. (Source: VA Inspector General)
Congressional testimony reveals VA was told to fix it. A year later, it still wasn’t done. (Source: VA Office of Inspector General Issue 69 Oct. 1, 2012-March 31, 2012)
Meanwhile, the Board of Veterans Appeals found errors in 73 percent of the cases it decided (Source: Board’s annual report)
HARDSHIPS AFTER DEATH
Looking at a photo from June, his daughter says, “This is my fathers last day, his last really special day, which was Father’s Day.”
For Sgt. 1st Class Hickerson, the VA sent the letter that would give him years of back pay the day he died. A VA backlog American veterans carry to their graves.
“He doesn’t have a headstone, him or my mother,” she said.
The family couldn’t afford one, let alone afford chairs for his funeral.
I-Team 8 put the Hickerson family in touch with case workers at the American Legion and Coats’ office to open a formal case to push theirs forward.