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Veterans rely on patchwork safety net during hard financial times

For many of the hundreds of thousands of veterans awaiting a decision from the Department of Veterans Affairs on disability and pension claims, the agency's backlog can lead to a period of financial hardship during the transition back to civilian life.

Ron and Karen Sanquist experienced this first-hand when Ron, a National Guardsman who had been deployed to Iraq in 2009 and Afghanistan in 2006, was released from active duty.

While cobbling together work in construction and at a call center — both of which severely reduced his National Guard pay — Ron filed a claim for post-traumatic stress disorder that resulted from his combat experience  during his deployments. The disability benefit would have helped the Sanquists afford their $3,000 in rent and monthly bills, but the backlog of claims meant the family would have to wait months for a decision.

Ron lost his position at the call center after requesting leave to fulfill his National Guard duties. Bills then began to pile up as the family of five missed rent, utility and insurance payments, among other expenses. The situation worsened in May when Ron, 39, was diagnosed with a heart murmur for which he'd need emergency surgery, guaranteeing that he'd be out of work and unable to job hunt for several weeks.

Desperate not to fall further behind, Karen turned to the patchwork safety net for veterans and their families experiencing financial hardship, an occurrence that happens more frequently than the public realizes, according to those who assist veterans and service members during hard times.

As of Aug. 25, there were 899,000 compensation and pension claims pending, two-thirds of which have been in the system for more than 125 days. In the Portland, Ore., area, where the Sanquists live, there are nearly 12,000 claims pending, far fewer than other major metropolitan areas in the West; Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Oakland and Phoenix are seeing twice that figure. While two-thirds of the claims processed in Portland have taken more than 125 days, the percentage spikes to more than 90 percent in Los Angeles and Oakland.

In a statement to NBC News, the Department of Veterans Affairs said that 1 million claims had been completed in the previous two fiscal years, and that the agency is on target to finish an additional 1 million in 2012.

"Still, too many veterans and their families have to wait too long to get the benefits they have earned and deserve which is unacceptable," the statement said.

VA is aiming to complete claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015 as it transitions to a digital processing system. The technology will be implemented in 16 regional offices this year and reach an additional 56 regional offices by the end of 2013. VA called the technology a "lasting solution" that will eliminate the backlog.

Karen told NBC News that her experience with VA was very positive, but that the nearly yearlong delay in receiving a decision on Ron's disability benefit still took a toll. "The waiting period is scary because you don’t know if it’s going to be two months or if it’s going to be another year." 

To survive the wait, Karen used what was left of the couple's savings and applied for assistance from several nonprofit groups and veteran service organizations. Ron's unit gave the couple a month's rent, as did the American Legion. ReserveAid covered another month's rent as well as lapsed medical insurance payments. USA Cares paid a garbage bill and Operation Homefront sent a $250 Wal-Mart gift card.

In July, the Sanquists began receiving disability payments for Ron's PTSD as well as his heart surgery, which was deemed service-connected. The process was expedited since the Sanquists were experiencing hardship, and the first sum included back payment for the months required to award the claim.

As Ron looks for a position that will allow him time to finish his last semester of school in animation and graphics afforded by the GI Bill, the family's finances remain shaky. "It's definitely one month at a time," Karen said.

Some families aren't as lucky as the Sanquists.

Barry Walter, state director of veterans services for the Illinois Veterans of Foreign Wars, said that though the "backlog adds to an already desperate situation," many families don't seek help until it's too late and their home is already in foreclosure, for example. The stigma of needing financial aid, particularly for veterans, can prevent them from coming forward early in the process.

However, veterans often aren't aware that they are eligible to receive emergency financial assistance from the county or state as well as organizations like VFW. In Illinois, counties have veterans assistance commissions that provide aid for expenses like unexpected dental or medical bills and utility shut-off notices. Some states also offer emergency grants to veterans, but Walter said that many don't know of those resources.

VFW's national program, Unmet Needs, awards one-time grants of up to $2,500 to families in hardship. Since 2004, more than $4.4 million has been given out to 3,200 military families. Veterans are qualified to receive assistance up to 36 months after an honorable discharge. The Illinois VFW also runs its own assistance fund and spent $38,000 in 2011, the majority of it to help veterans with expenses like rent and groceries.

Walter said that he receives about one inquiry a day from veterans seeking aid. The calls come from young veterans who have just returned and can't find work, veterans nearing retirement age who have been laid off, and even the elderly who now need a pension increase for medical expenses or nursing home care. They are all affected by the backlog, Walter said. He'll tell them about the VFW's programs, but he'll also refer them to organizations like the Salvation Army, Lutheran Services, Easter Seals and Catholic Charities, which can provide help.

The American Legion, also a veterans service organization, operates a temporary financial assistance fund for military families with children at home. An average of a half million dollars is allocated each year for food, clothing, shelter and utilities. Requests can be granted in as little as 24 hours and the average claim takes less than a week to process, according to Jason Kees, family support network coordinator for the American Legion. 

Kees told NBC News that the fund is run through a separate endowment and that requests exceed the available aid. As a result, the organization dips into its own funding to make up the difference.

Kees said that the public's lack of awareness adds to the challenges of getting enough resources to families in need.

Once a community realizes a veteran is struggling, Kees said, "the outpouring of love and support is fabulous." But all too often, the public doesn't realize military families need help because of the perception that the war in Iraq is over and the fighting in Afghanistan is winding down.  

Karen Sanquist said that the emergency aid her family received was a "blessing," but that she wished more people knew about the available services.

"It was wonderful hearing these people say, 'There’s a light at the end of tunnel but until you get there, make sure you don’t get so far behind that you get in trouble."

Rebecca Ruiz is a reporter at NBC News. Follow her on Twitter here.

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