Gulf War Vets Home Page
VA prompted to reach out to disabled veterans
By Maureen O'Donnell
CHICAGO — After prodding from the Chicago Sun-Times, veterans and Illinois' two U.S. senators, the Veterans Affairs Department is sending out letters to Illinois vets to address the state's 20-year history of ranking at the bottom of the nation for disability benefits.
More than 62,000 disabled Illinois veterans will get the mailing. The letters, which started going out Monday, will inform them of Illinois' low-benefit history. They will also instruct recipients on how to file new claims, reopen old ones and apply for increased benefits if their disabilities have worsened, Illinois' Democratic senators, Dick Durbin and Barack Obama, said Monday.
'Shortchanged' for years
The massive VA outreach — a total of 326,000 letters — affects Illinois and five other states with low benefits: Connecticut, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio.
"For 20 straight years, Illinois veterans were shortchanged," Durbin said at a news conference at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Chicago. "Men and women who served this country, who were disabled during that service and eligible for compensation, did not receive what they deserved from their government."
"They have a right to know that they may have been mistreated and that there are steps they can take to improve their situation," Obama said.
The VA complained it would be swamped if it had to send out the letters, Durbin said.
"So be it," he said. "It's better that there'll be a hardship on the VA than more hardship on Illinois veterans."
"Part of what we want to do is to push the VA to hire more people to deal with these claims. It can't be an answer that the VA says, 'We don't have enough people,'" Obama said.
Obama: Sun-Times probe key
The VA is required to send the letters because of the senators' legislative efforts in response to a Sun-Times probe of the inequities.
"The Sun-Times investigation was critical," Obama said. "I applaud the consistent work that they have done in highlighting this issue."
A probe by the VA's inspector general showed that Illinois veterans have averaged the lowest disability benefits in the country for the past 20 years. In 2004, Illinois vets averaged $6,961 a year, compared with $12,004 in top-ranked New Mexico. The national average was $8,378.
The senators were flanked by veterans' representatives.
"We have a couple of good guys working for us now," said William C. Hudson, 63, a Chicago Vietnam veteran and commander of Cook County's First Division of the American Legion.
The outreach is urgent because of the influx of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans coming home, Obama said.
Veterans with questions can call the agency at (800) 827-1000 or check the VA Web site: www.vba.va.gov/SpecialOutreach. They can also visit the regional VA office at 2122 W. Taylor St. in Chicago.
Sun-Times News Group