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Posted on Tue, Jul 23, 2013 : 11:30 a.m.

Delays in Veteran benefit claims and Pentagon payroll errors show disrespect for the common good

By Guest Column

On Memorial Day we remembered fellow citizens who put nation before self. Earlier this month we observed the founding of a nation and recognized those who stepped forward to serve.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) there are 22 million military veterans nationwide and 680,400 Michigan veterans. A 2010 DVA National Survey of Veterans shows that 68% of all veterans and 82% of post 9/11 veterans anticipate using VA health benefits.

So it’s alarming to hear reports that nearly 900,000 veterans have pending VA benefit claims, with nearly 600,000 of these claims delayed for months, sometimes years. Analyses by the Center for Investigative Reporting show the average waiting time for benefits is nine months. Amazingly most claims are yet to be computerized and Eric Shinseki, the VA Secretary, says that switching from paper to electronic files is a goal. A goal!

And now we hear about widespread Pentagon payroll errors. A recent Reuters report identifies a 40 year old computer system consistently generating mistakes that adversely affect thousands of active-duty personnel and discharged soldiers. Stories of families not having enough money to live on are painfully common.

We’ve heard various explanations ranging from budget cuts to bureaucratic and technological inefficiencies. But consider other facts about the women and men who hear the call and bear the burdens of military service. In his book Justice: What’s the right thing to do? Harvard’s Michael Sandel describes the social class composition of our all-volunteer force (AVF). Young people from families with incomes between $30,000 and $60,000 (27% of American families) are significantly overrepresented. America’s median income is $61,000. The least represented recruits are from the most affluent 20% of families (making approximately $125,000 or more per year). Only 6.5% of 18-24 year olds in AVF have ever been to college.

Clearly our military readiness heavily relies on young people from the bottom half of the country’s income distribution. Imagine if the majority of today’s veterans and soldiers had grown up in America’s most affluent families - daughters and sons of doctors, corporate executives, and political leaders. Would benefit claims and payrolls still be inefficiently processed?

So what are long-term solutions for a clear disrespect of so many veterans and soldiers? Might we benefit from a mandatory two or three year national service for all high school graduates, regardless of social class background? Other countries expect this commitment. Our national service could provide women and men in needed civilian work (e.g. social/medical services, road and construction projects, similar to the popular 1930’s Civilian Conservation Corps), as well as military recruits.

Would efficiency and respect finally govern the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Pentagon? Could national service - proposed as duty to community - allow people from various social class groups opportunities to work together for the common good? Might this help produce a desperately needed national unity? The long-term collective benefits of an American National Service far outweigh short-term disruptions of work and career plans. Perhaps the time is right.

Dwight Lang is an Ann Arbor resident and teaches in the sociology department at the University of Michigan.



Thu, Jul 25, 2013 : 4:27 a.m.

Dear Dwight, I get that you are trying to spin the whole "keeping the bottom half down" But, you are equating a lengthy final decision of benefits to disrespect of soldiers. I would love to know your understanding of the processing of benefits(which is completely absent completely in your theory and has nothing to do with the volunteer army concept-I am missing the connection)? Lets take one area of benefits-VA Disability rating. It is first based on your service, separation and if you had a separation with a medical rating from your last branch of service. Then, the physical process, a complete and detailed medical review takes place. From the start of the process, or request for benefits, begins the waiting process which is decided at the end of treatment or assessment and can be appealed or reviewed. This can take a very long time, for instance with a vet going through a therapy that takes a year to complete. The VA is constantly working to recognize more and more major issues in which to quantify a rating such as MST, TBI, PTSD, and so on and on (I know you can use google if you are wondering about the acronyms). That said, it's a process a civilian usually doesn't understand-hurry up and wait. Then, to maintain benefits the vet is responsible for taking care of themselves and following docs orders. But, benefits range from which GI BILL to select to requesting a flag to drape a casket. And very few things happen overnight. Yes, we need the system to work better, but it's pretty damn good and it's getting better. The benefits are usually more meaningful than a paycheck for most of us, it's improving our quality of life be it financially,physically, or merely in how we identify ourselves. And I'm here to tell you, and you are more than welcome to test your sociologic expertise out, read this article to a company of soldiers and hear what they say...I can arrange that. Maybe we could all learn something.


Wed, Jul 24, 2013 : 11:57 a.m.

What a poorly setup argument. Veterans are poorly served so let's make everyone become a veteran... I've told my son to put Mr. Lang on his "don't take a class from this guy" list.


Wed, Jul 24, 2013 : 6:27 a.m.

It's really a shame that some of us, like myself, are doing everything they can to get into the military, but stupidity of the Armed Forces brass keep me from joining. I've been applying to be an officer in the Navy since 2008; I have a Master's degree, and I've never been arrested nor fired from a job. But both my parents passed away while I was in high school, so I developed depression, which eventually I voluntarily sought treatment for three months. When I gave up on the direct route to OCS, I applied to enlist (so that I could earn commissioning after A School) and was flagged and disqualified from MEPS. I'm trying to appeal one last time, but I'm facing an uphill battle. I'm the ideal recruit the military should bending over backwards for, not making it so damn difficult just to serve.


Wed, Jul 24, 2013 : 8:32 p.m.

GoNavy - thank you. NSider - Coast Guard still requires going through MEPS, which is where I'm flagged. Go figure.


Wed, Jul 24, 2013 : 11:47 a.m.

Try the Coast Guard. They aren't military, and you'll be able to get your feet wet up to the ankles.


Wed, Jul 24, 2013 : 11:10 a.m.

The armed forces aren't for everybody. Good luck, though.


Wed, Jul 24, 2013 : 1:29 a.m.

Having a sociology professor that lives in a sheltered ivory tower at an elite college like the University of Michigan write an article on the military is like having a women's studies PhD become the chief editor for National Geographic... it makes no sense. I'm a vet and used the benefits like the GI Bill, student loan repayment, and the VA housing loan with no problem at all. The process to get the benefits takes time but if you're persistent it gets done. The military has given me a lot. If I were rich I probably wouldn't have signed up but that was the point... sure there are dangers but it paid off for me... it was my choice! There are millions more poor people who DON'T join the military then do... it is their choice. Forced service is for desperate times like WWII but where many rich son's joined and died voluntarily though. Just look at JFK and his brother who died... George Bush #1 got shot down too in that war. John Kerry got shot in Vietnam and was almost president and came from a pretty powerful family that was not super wealthy but well off. I see the point the writer is trying to make, I heard a Marine Captain make the same point before but the truth of the matter is that many young adults are just not National Service material and would not be able to meet the high demand of federal service... so they would have them labeled "losers" by society the rest of their lives just because of something they couldn't handle when they were young but might have matured later on.


Wed, Jul 24, 2013 : 1:19 a.m.

But we're going to set up a national health care program that will administer to millions, not just 900,000. It will be flawless. The government is here to help.


Thu, Jul 25, 2013 : 9:46 p.m.

So nice blue. Active duty late '70's into the '80's. Deployed twice to Afghanistan, late 2001 to 2002, and late 2012 to March of this year. As a DoD civilian. Shouldn't throw stones blue, if you don't know the house you're hitting.


Thu, Jul 25, 2013 : 3:49 a.m.

Huh, you googled what we lived.....stay on the couch.


Wed, Jul 24, 2013 : 10:29 p.m.

That is great news. Hopefully you did not wait 600+ days to receive your benefits. Google "VA Benefit Delays" for a dose of current reality. Failure to administer a program for a small subset of the population does not bode well for ACA


Wed, Jul 24, 2013 : 11:52 a.m.

As a disabled vet who uses the VA Hospital a lot, I can tell you I have never received better care anywhere else. I am absolutely pleased with the VA, although yes, it does take years to get requests for entitlements through the system. The VA has saved my life several times since VietNam and they are making great strides in their use of technology. One must also know that the Ann Arbor VA has on its' staff many of the doctors from UoM and they are excellent physicians.

Dog Guy

Wed, Jul 24, 2013 : 12:10 a.m.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that she was briefed before the release of a controversial intelligence assessment and that she stands by the report, which lists returning veterans among terrorist risks to the U.S. The Pentagon might be attempting to reduce that risk.


Tue, Jul 23, 2013 : 10:28 p.m.

Nobody serves so that they can hang a guilt trip on you. I suspect the author never did...the loudest 'patriots' rarely do.


Tue, Jul 23, 2013 : 5:07 p.m.

I have always believed that a mandatory 2-3 year Federal Service should be required for ALL citizens. Federal Service does NOT necessarily mean uniformed (military) service though, and everyone can serve, everyone has potential. I knew conscientious objectors during the VN era who were required to put in their time, as orderlies in psychiatric hospitals (nothing glamorous about that, I'll tell you). The option to choose military service should be there as well, but I'd love to see the streets of all our major cities cleaned, the overgrown parks and lots mowed, homes for the elderly properly maintained, all of which could be accomplished by a Federal Service Corps. As the line goes "Freedom isn't Free". We all owe a debt to our nation, too few are picking up the tab.

michael Limmer

Tue, Jul 23, 2013 : 11:58 p.m.

The CEO's kids get to drive the trucks, while everyone else hauls.

Linda Peck

Tue, Jul 23, 2013 : 9:29 p.m.

Civilian Conservation Core was a great plan and my dad was part of it, but it certainly not was mandatory.


Tue, Jul 23, 2013 : 7:35 p.m.

Ok, let's start right here. Every UM student must report for duty immediately upon graduation. No exceptions. Even if you're disabled, we can find something for you to do. Children of college professors will be shipped immediately to the most blighted neighborhoods in Detroit to pick up the garbage. They will serve with the children of CEOs so that we can encourage diversity.


Tue, Jul 23, 2013 : 6:18 p.m.

Let's not get too practical or grounded in common sense. What about all the poor CEOs that this would adversely affected. Being that many of the services you mentioned are currently on the block to be outsources or have been outsourced to private corporations, what would they do to achieve their primary goal of profit? We would be inundated with a flood of CEO/CFO tears (sarcasm if you did not guess). Considering the level of need we have allowed to be created, it sounds like a worthy plan. Look what the CCC built for our nation, and the same needs that created the CCC are increasing today. Look at the statistic in the article. It's the one job you are given for almost just showing up to the recruiting office. Granted there are some limitations. However, my brother in law was a Navy recruiter of a decade and the emphasis is on "some" limitations. They need warm bodies. When our current potential opposition is building a force of college graduates (aka China), simply being "Gung Ho" does not sound like enough.


Tue, Jul 23, 2013 : 4:29 p.m.

So the solution to bloated, incompetent, and inefficient bureaucracies is to funnel millions more into those systems? That's absurd. The solution is to cut out the perpetual foreign interventions, refocus the military to its proper role (defense of this country) and thus be able to restructure and scale back the Pentagon to a manageable size. The burden on the VA would then be relieved because we would not be constantly adding hundreds of new wounded veterans who require benefits. I won't get into the fact that involuntary servitude is supposed to be prohibited these days since the government has obviously gotten around that inconvenient fact in the past. But of course, shrinking the size and role of government as the above would do is not the point here, is it?

Top Cat

Tue, Jul 23, 2013 : 4:14 p.m.

"Might we benefit from a mandatory two or three year national service for all high school graduates, regardless of social class background?" NO! Unless there is a national emergency (World War 2), I can't think of many things more anathema to a free people than forced service to the government.


Tue, Jul 23, 2013 : 5:53 p.m.

Forced service to the government didn't get us out of Vietnam until thousands were dead.


Tue, Jul 23, 2013 : 5:30 p.m.

If we had "forced service to the government"we would not have been in Iraq and we'd be out of Afghanistan long ago.

Nicholas Urfe

Tue, Jul 23, 2013 : 4 p.m.

Don't go to perpetual war if you cannot support your soldiers.


Thu, Jul 25, 2013 : 3:53 a.m.

Where did you serve? If you are having trouble accessing your benefits, or are feeling unsupported please reach out.