Active-duty military personnel should begin the process of enrolling for veterans benefits before they leave the service, and veterans trying to make a claim should contact a local service organization to get help to ensure they get the benefits they were promised.

A recent report by AMVETS, a national veterans service organization representing all of the military branches, found that understaffing and underfunding makes it impossible for Veterans Affairs to properly serve veterans, even as a new group of veterans returns from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Despite the best of intentions, too many of our veterans are encountering obstacles and delays in accessing and receiving health care, disability, job training and educational benefits they have earned," said Tom McGriff, AMVETS' national commander.

Former prisoner of war Shoshana Johnson, an El Paso resident, attended an AMVETS national symposium in Chicago in October that was set up to gather information for the report, particularly on the reforms needed to care for younger veterans injured in the war on terror.

"I think (the benefits system) is inadequate," Johnson said in a phone interview late last week.

Although Johnson said her fame as the first black female prisoner of war and support from a family with a long military history ensured she got the benefits that she had earned, other military members with lower profiles have not been as well served by VA.

"I was processed before I even exited the service," said Joseph Hudson, who was in the same unit as Johnson and was also taken prisoner during the invasion of Iraq. "Why can't we do that for all the veterans?"

The man in charge of the Veterans Benefits Administration, retired Vice Admiral Daniel L. Cooper, said progress is being made and, in some cases, veterans are angry because their claims don't qualify under the existing rules.

Cooper, who was in El Paso for a Veterans Town Hall meeting sponsored by Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said accuracy in claims processing increased by 9 percent to about 89 percent at the end of the 2006 fiscal year.

That means in case reviews - done at central offices away from the regional offices that originally handled the claims - 89 percent are found to be done correctly, which includes identifying all the qualifying medical problems and giving the proper amount of money.

"We have done a lot of training and we have done centralized training," Cooper said. "I'm satisfied we've made progress."

Cooper said it takes about two years to fully train a case worker and recently, VBA has lost some of its best trained staff. "We aren't quite there yet to get on top of the whole thing," he said.

Although the number of claims being processed over the last five years has increased 38 percent, Cooper said, more than 57 percent - mostly Vietnam veterans - are existing claims in which the veteran is asking to be re-evaluated for a worsening condition. Claims from veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan represent only about 15 percent of the total, he said.

About 26 percent of the total are first-time claims, he said, and many of those are a result of VBA outreach - to homeless veterans, former prisoners of war and surviving spouses, for example. Despite the increased workload, Cooper said, the time it takes to process a claim has dropped.

In early 2003, it took an average of 233 days to process a claim compared with 179 days now, he said.

The increase in claims has pushed the backlog from a recent low of about 253,000 up to about 388,000, Cooper said.

Another sore point for many veterans is the time it takes to process an appeal. "A vet can always appeal if he doesn't agree and he does not lose the date of claim," Cooper said.

Cooper admits the process isn't easy, but he said the appeal is there to ensure veterans get the maximum benefit to which they are entitled under the current rules.

He said VBA workers should "give the benefit of the doubt to the veteran."

But many veterans argue the VA attitude is exactly the opposite.

Johnson said the VBA seems to have an attitude of "you're guilty of cheating until you're proved sick."

"I don't think it's intentional," she added. "They've tried so hard to weed out the bad apples that they can't let the people who need help get in there."

In 2006, VBA approved about $36.7 billion in mandatory benefits, Cooper said, and he expects about a $5 billion increase in 2007.

"About 70 percent (of claims) get approved and about 30 percent don't, for very good reasons," Cooper said. "We're using your tax dollars. We're not trying to save money, we're trying to make sure what we do is legal and proper."

Another issue especially important to active-duty military members is getting paperwork in line before leaving the service.

Cooper said the "Benefits Delivery on Discharge" program exists to help with that process, but the AMVETS report says the service needs more staff and resources and should coordinate more closely with the Defense Department to create a seamless transition.

"A guy might like it sooner, but it's a lot faster than it was," Cooper said.

Even though the veterans service organizations often criticize the VA, Cooper said they are valuable, adding, "It benefits any veteran to come to us as soon as possible."

That's something everyone interviewed for this story seems to agree on.

"Anyone who can should use a veterans service organization," Hudson said. "They will give you proper representation and it's a free service. That way you're not fighting a battle all by yourself."

Chris Roberts may be reached at chrisr@elpasotimes.com; 546-6136.