TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The buzz in his ears is constant, and so is the discomfort in his stomach. But when Vic Torres, an Orlando-area state senator, has gone to the Department of Veterans Affairs for help for what doctors have said are service-related issues, he has been disappointed.
“Denied,” he said. “It’s not just me. What do they say? The few, the proud? Sure, until you’re in your late 70s. Your mid 70s. Then it’s too bad, too sad.”
Torres served during the Vietnam era as a sergeant in a Marine Artillery Unit. The roar of the weaponry left him with a hearing issue but, so far, it has not been determined severe enough to qualify for a disability benefit.
“I say really? Do you wake up with that condition?” Torres said, reflecting on his conversation with a VA case worker. “I wake up with it. I go to sleep with it. The constant ringing – like right now – the constant ringing in my ears. All day.”
The polluted water scandal at Camp Lejeune also impacted Torres, who was diagnosed with a stomach disorder tied to the contamination.
But, again, he has been denied VA benefits.
“They are the ones accountable for what they did to us when we were 19 or 20 years old, serving this country,” Torres said. “But they deny you and hope you give up. That’s what they do.”
Torres said when he wears his Marine T-shirt out in public, other veterans start conversations that often delve into issues with the VA.
“They’ll say they don’t want to go through the hassle [of applying for benefits,]” Torres said. “I say ‘why not? Go file.’ They say, ‘no. It’s a hassle.’ That’s because they’re turned off.”
VA Public Affairs Officer Gary Kunich said there are just over 200,000 backlogged claims with a goal to cut the total in half by 2024.
Thirty percent of VA requests are denied in a given year, according to Berry Law, a firm that represents veterans. VA stats indicate close to 80 percent of burn-pit related claims have been denied since 2007.
Kunich said the VA will be hiring 2,000 employees “to accelerate processing and reduce the number of veterans awaiting a decision.” The agency will also allow for more overtime to untangle the backlog, according to Kunich.
Torres and other state lawmakers are planning a letter to Congress to ask for help from their federal colleagues to push the VA into action.
Torres called out Sen. Rick Scott specifically.
“Scott? He was a Navy guy, now in the U.S. Senate,” Torres said. “So why isn’t he pushing the VA to get all these cases heard?”
Scott has yet to respond to our request for comment about the backlog issue.
Torres hopes pressure from state lawmakers can force some changes in the $250 billion a year VA.
“The problem with the VA is they change the head but not the body,” Torres said. “There are people working there for 30 years. They don’t care enough. You have to change the body.”
Torres remains hopeful but skeptical.
“I was telling a friend of mine, it’s the three Ds: Deny, delay and die,” Torres said. “It just shows the lack of compassion. You’re just a number. You served. You’re gone. You’re forgotten.”