With the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan winding down, the VA is sorting through a backlog of more than 860,000 disability claims from American veterans. More than a quarter of those vets -- 228,000 -- have been waiting for a year or more.
The litany of delays includes lost paperwork, long wait times for appointments and erroneous lab results. At one point, a doctor prescribed [staff sergeant Mike Rioux] medication for a bladder infection he didn't have; he'd never given as much as a urine sample.
In August 2011, the VA told Rioux his claim was in review and, four months later, he was told to expect a decision by the end of the year. None came.
Both he and [wife] Maggie wrote numerous letters seeking help, including one to first lady Michelle Obama, with a copy sent to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Three months ago, the Riouxes finally heard from the VA about his claim. It rejected coverage for his traumatic brain injury, granting him limited disability coverage that amounts to about $660 a month.
Attempts to get full disability coverage have left the Riouxes often lost in a morass of red tape and confusing policies at dozens of offices in various veterans medical centers.
"That is trademark VA -- that you get answers, and then a different answer from the same building, but a different floor or a different office," Maggie Rioux said. "And the confusion that ensues is monumental."
The Riouxes are not alone. Two-thirds of the 860,000 applicants have been waiting longer than the 125 days that Shinseki set as a goal for processing claims. On average, the VA said veterans wait more than eight months -- 256 days -- before their claim is resolved.
CNN interviewed 16 veterans for this report, all of whom recounted monthslong waits to get a simple evaluation of their disabilities. Many said they had not received prompt help for serious mental health issues. One vet said he called a VA suicide prevention hotline, was told he would be called back, and a return call never came -- a situation the agency said never should have happened.