For 21/2 years, Iraq combat veteran Robert Fearing battled overwhelming anxiety and paranoia, a remnant of the mortar attacks he endured in the desert, all the while swallowing his frustration at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for failing to process his disability claim.
His wait ended when he decided to speak up. The VA's Baltimore office -- the worst-performing in the country -- approved Fearing's claim for post-traumatic stress disorder less than a week after The Baltimore Sun highlighted his struggles in an article about the agency's high error rate and vast backlog.
"For me, it's obviously a good thing," said Fearing, 44, a former Aberdeen resident who has since moved to Stafford, Va. "[But] when there are 900,000 veterans waiting, it doesn't give me that warm and fuzzy feeling."
Fearing, who is married and has four children, received an 80 percent disability rating, which will provide him with more than $1,800 in benefits a month. The Bronze Star recipient retired from the Air Force after serving 20 years.
"It's amazing that it was done so quickly, which means they had all the information they had to have to make a decision, but it was just sitting around," Fearing said.
Meagan Lutz, a VA spokeswoman, said the Baltimore office had completed multiple actions on Fearing's claim before the article was published, but she acknowledged that the coverage triggered a review.
"As a result of the Baltimore Sun article, we completed an immediate review and found we could make a partial decision on his claim," Lutz said in an email.
Although Fearing was approved for some benefits, portions of his case remain under review.
"Until all issues are resolved, his claim remains open," Lutz said.
Fearing provided The Sun with a copy of the letter he received from the VA that shows his 80 percent disability rating is effective retroactive to Dec. 1. Fearing said he had previously received some disability benefits for sinus problems, anxiety and migraines.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said news media exposure has prompted VA action in other places in the country, such as Oakland, Calif.
"This is not the first time I've seen it happen," Rieckhoff said. "We saw it in Oakland. They shifted some resources over. I wouldn't be surprised if [The Sun's] story brings increased focus and resources to Baltimore. But it shouldn't take that.
"It becomes a game of Whac-A-Mole; it was Oakland. Now, it's Baltimore. We're hearing stories from Florida and Texas and other places."
The latest figures show an error rate at the Oakland office of 12.3 percent, compared to 26.2 percent at the Baltimore office, which serves all of Maryland. Nearly 84 percent of Baltimore's cases are older than 125 days; about 82 percent of Oakland's cases are backlogged.
This week, Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin, both Maryland Democrats, told the VA's secretary, Eric K. Shinseki, that the situation in Baltimore was unacceptable. They demanded that the agency provide a plan to correct the problems and assign a senior-level official to provide them with information on the progress.
Cardin said Friday that the action on Fearing's claim does not solve the problems facing the local office.
"I am pleased that Mr. Fearing's case has been resolved, but the Baltimore VA Office has more than 16,000 claims still pending and that is totally unacceptable," the senator said in a statement. "Maryland veterans deserve much better from the VA, and I am committed to making sure that we get the backlog addressed and resolved quickly."
The problems at the local office, located at 31 Hopkins Plaza, have been well documented in recent years. Audits from 2009 and 2011 show that the Baltimore office did not adequately control its workload, and investigators called for additional oversight and training.
The office serves 450,000 veterans in the state.
Rieckhoff said he is waiting to see what the VA does to respond to the challenges in Baltimore and hopes change comes sooner than later.
"I know the VA understands the complexity and depth of the challenge; I don't think they realize the complexity and depth of the anger and the frustration," he said. "It's the No. 1 issue that folks bring up with me, no matter where I am in the country."
Fearing said he is making plans to move his family to Arizona, to be closer to relatives. He is awaiting a request for an early retirement from his government job in counterintelligence, a career that he said triggers his PTSD and feelings of paranoia and one he can no longer perform. When he gets out west, Fearing said, he wants to find a new track, perhaps as a teacher.
"There are 900,000 other veterans out there," he said. "I don't think we should rest on our laurels and say, 'The battle is won,' because it is not. It may have solved my issues.
"They deserve the same level of response."
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