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VA hospitals overwhelmed with patients

The U.S. government promises to take care of the healthcare needs of veterans who return from wars. But the nation's VA hospitals are overwhelmed, as veterans live longer and more troops are injured every day. NBC's Kevin Corke reports.

Twenty-two-year-old Marine Cpl. Visnu Gonzalez was in Fallujah on April 21 when snipers opened fire. He was struck twice and paralyzed from the waist down.

"[The bullet] got my spine and went through the center of my back," he remembers.

Thirty-eight years ago, Artie Guerrero was fighting a different war — in Vietnam.

"I took an AK-47 all the way through the right shoulder, grenade shrapnel on the left shoulder, and a .45 slug from a grease gun on the left thigh," Guerrero recalls.

Today, both Guerrero and Gonzalez are depending on the same Veterans Affairs healthcare system for treatment. Corporal Gonzalez is one of 5,000 soldiers too injured to return to the front.

With the combination of aging veterans living longer and new veterans coming home, there are more than 300,000 VA claims still waiting to be processed. Some VA patients wait up to a year to see specialists. Artie Guerrero says he's on a waiting list.

"I was told I had high blood pressure and I needed to be monitored and it was an emergency," he says. "They wanted to do a 24-hour check on me. I still have not been contacted for that appointment to get a heart monitor."

VA Acting Undersecretary Jonathan Perlin says VA hospitals get high marks for service and care. Perlin says new technology is reducing paperwork and speeding up services, but he acknowledges there's room for improvement.

"I can't tell you on any given day that there won't be something that's not perfect at a site, but when there's an issue, we own it and we'll take care of it," says Perlin.

But some members of Congress are concerned current VA funding levels may not keep up with demand in the years to come.

"Funding has increased, but it hasn't increased at the same level the veterans themselves are increasing," says Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. "And so healthcare is being basically rationed to our veterans."

It's a system under growing pressure, at a time when a new generation of veterans hope the sacrifices they made at war will be remembered — and the promises made to them at home will be kept.