By Joanna Raines
Forty-five veterans "stormed Capitol Hill" Thursday to focus lawmakers' attention on the 2013 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America policy agenda.
Men and women from 22 states, including Texas, traveled to Washington to meet with lawmakers and campaign their petition that calls on President Obama to end the backlog that keeps Veteran's from receiving benefits in a timely manner.
They didn't have to go far to find a friend in the Texas congressional delegation. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, stood with the veterans this morning during a press conference. Flores said he supports the mission of IAWA because he is frustrated with the current state of the VA.
"We in Congress need to redouble our efforts on this. Treating these young men and women the way we treat them is just not fair given the sacrifices they made for us," Flores said.
Flores' district includes the Waco Regional Veterans Affairs Office, which was rated as having one of the slowest response times in the country. Flores said the office has made some improvements, but still has a long way to go. Flores plans to meet with the offices every three to six months to ensure they keep making progress.
The support of leaders in Washington is reassuring for veterans like Jeff Hensley from Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. Hensley spent 21 years in the Navy and underwent a few combat deployments. He said his deployment during Operation Iraqi Freedom was particularly difficult, and he needed the VA to help him through the reintegration process.
"I got to the point where I felt like I needed some counseling and I went to the VA and the VA was not set up to handle the number of people that were looking for counseling," Hensley said.
Hensley was told he would have to wait over 100 days to receive the counseling he needed, which he said wasn't enough time.
"I needed help sooner than 120 days. My kids needed a father who was gonna be there and be strong," Hensley said, "I wasn't prepared to do that."
Hensley instead utilized the services of a nonprofit in Dallas, and has since received his masters degree in counseling and works with an equine program in nearby Wiley that serves veterans.
Hensley said the fact that the backlog has reached such extreme levels -- nearly 900,000 pending claims -- is the biggest failing of the VA. Hensley said veterans need holistic care, and if you are waiting on your claim, you are stuck in limbo.
"If you've got a disability claim pending, that's been pending for one year, two years, three years in some cases you don't really know what's going to happen to you," Hensley said.
The number one priority of the IAVA 2013 policy agenda is ending the backlog. The group is calling on President Obama to appoint a presidential commission to end the backlog problem, and is asking for supporters to sign their petition.
The petition has gained over 34,000 signatures, including Flores and Rep. John Carter, R- Round Rock.
IAVA is already seeing successes coming from this year's storm the hill. Veteran Zack McIlwain of Indiana had been waiting over 900 days to resolve his claims. After an interview with CNN, his claim was resolved within 24 hours.
"They made one phone call and sure enough, this problem that's been going on for three years magically gets solved. There's a way to do it," Hensley said.