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US faces surge of new vets seeking disability

America's newest veterans are filing for disability benefits at a historic rate, claiming to be the most medically and mentally troubled generation of former troops in US history. The troubled economy may be a factor.

By Marilynn MarchioneAssociated Press / May 28, 2012

Army Pfc. Kevin Trimble adjusts his upper limb prosthetic for occupational therapy at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Pfc. Trimble lost both legs above the knee and an arm from a bomb in Afghanistan.

Lisa Krantz/San Antonio Express-News/AP

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America's newest veterans are filing for disability benefits at a historic rate, claiming to be the most medically and mentally troubled generation of former troops the nation has ever seen.

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A staggering 45 percent of the 1.6 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now seeking compensation for injuries they say are service-related. That is more than double the estimate of 21 percent who filed such claims after the Gulf War in the early 1990s, top government officials told The Associated Press.

What's more, these new veterans are claiming eight to nine ailments on average, and the most recent ones over the last year are claiming 11 to 14. By comparison, Vietnam veterans are currently receiving compensation for fewer than four, on average, and those from World War II and Korea, just two.

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It's unclear how much worse off these new veterans are than their predecessors. Many factors are driving the dramatic increase in claims – the weak economy, more troops surviving wounds, and more awareness of problems such as concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Almost one-third have been granted disability so far.

Government officials and some veterans' advocates say that veterans who might have been able to work with certain disabilities may be more inclined to seek benefits now because they lost jobs or can't find any. Aggressive outreach and advocacy efforts also have brought more veterans into the system, which must evaluate each claim to see if it is war-related. Payments range from $127 a month for a 10 percent disability to $2,769 for a full one.

As the U.S. commemorates the more than 6,400 troops who died in post-Sept. 11, 2001 wars, the problems of those who survived also draw attention. These new veterans are seeking a level of help the government did not anticipate, and for which there is no special fund set aside to pay.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is mired in backlogged claims, but "our mission is to take care of whatever the population is," said Allison Hickey, the VA's undersecretary for benefits. "We want them to have what their entitlement is."

The 21 percent who filed claims in previous wars is Hickey's estimate of an average for the 1990-91 Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait. The VA has details only on the current disability claims being paid to veterans of each war.

The AP spent three months reviewing records and talking with doctors, government officials and former troops to take stock of the new veterans. They are different in many ways from those who fought before them.

More are from the Reserves and National Guard – 28 percent of those filing disability claims – rather than career military. Reserves and National Guard made up a greater percentage of troops in these wars than they did in previous ones. About 31 percent of Guard/Reserve new veterans have filed claims compared to 56 percent of career military ones.

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