CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Area veterans are increasingly frustrated with a disability benefits system at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs they say does not work.
On Your Side Investigates has been uncovering problems with the VA for more than six months, after we received multiple complaints from local veterans experiencing problems within multiple VA departments.
This month, we talked with multiple veterans who are fed up with the time it has taken to get the disability payments they say they're entitled to for injuries they suffered serving their country.
The first veteran to raise such a complaint was Noel Mercadel, who reached out to On Your Side Investigates in February after the VA had repeatedly denied his claim to be rated 100 percent disabled.
His claim had been continually denied, despite a determination made in July 2015 from the medical director at the Charlotte VA clinic that "due to his SC disabilities he is 100% permanently and totally disabled and unemployable."
Mercadel used to work as a bus drive but had been out of work for years due to injuries he suffered as a result of an injury he suffered during his time in the Army.
Similarly, Ryan Purkey, a veteran from Catawba County, left the Army after just eight months following a back injury he suffered during a training march in Hawaii.
"We were doing a PT march with a full rucksack and I stepped in a hole about a foot and a half deep with my right leg and tore some disks in my back," Purkey recalled. "It was very disappointing because I knew then I wasn't going to be able to perform the duty that I signed up to do and it was always a lifelong dream to serve my country."
Purkey was discharged from the Army in January 2011. Today, he still walks with a limp and relies on medication to alleviate his pain.
He's now locked in a battle with the VA for thousands of dollars in back pay he says he's owed after they initially refused to increase his disability rating to include his degenerative disk and spine disease in addition to the sciatic nerve pain for which he had already received a disability rating.
The VA eventually increased his disability rating but did not award him back pay that he would have earned had they rated him for the degenerative back disease from the beginning. Now, Purkey's claim for back pay has been canceled because, the VA says, he failed to fill out and return a form that neither he nor his veteran service officer say they received.
"She's adamant that they never sent it," Purkey said of Cindy Travis, the Catawba County Veteran Service Office. "Everything that's sent out in cases like these she receives and she never received it."
Because Purkey didn't return a letter he is adamant the VA never sent, he will miss out on $16,000 in back pay for disability benefits he says he's owed.
"If somebody's willing to give up their life to fight for our country's freedom, they need to be treated with respect. Not thrown on the back burn and forgotten," Purkey said.
If anyone knows how frustrating the VA's layers and layers of bureaucratic paperwork can be, it's Janice Powell. She's spent years helping her husband fight for disability benefits related to his debilitating arthritis.
"He had that arthritis where his hands were closed up and he couldn't sign his name," Powell recalled of her husband.
Janice Powell sat down for a recent interview with On Your Side Investigates recently without her husband, Andrew Powell, by her side. He died earlier this year without resolving his disability claim.
"It was very frustrating because everything that they requested, I sent, made copies and sent," Janice Powell while looking over a mound of paperwork related to her husband's disability claim.
She struggles to understand why it has taken more than five years to approve her husband's claim. Documents provided by Powell show his claim was never denied, the VA just kept asking for more and more paperwork.
"I have no idea, unless they were just waiting for him to pass away, which he did," she said. "I would not want another veteran, male or female, to go through with the paperwork that we went through with and still not receive any benefits."
On Your Side Investigates contacted the VA to try and get an explanation behind the difficulties i the cases of Mercadel, Powell and Purkey.
Along with our request for information, we submitted multiple release forms signed by each veteran authorizing the VA to speak with us about the personal information.
But a VA representative told us we'd have to get the veterans to sign different, additional release forms before they could give us any answers.
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