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Mrs. Hasler said she was able to get the claim opened only after seeking help from advocates at VAwatchdog.org, who exposed her problems with the VBA to the public as “the Case of the Atomic Widow.”

Other veterans, including former Vietnam helicopter pilot Jim Massey, are still fighting for benefits. Mr. Massey has retained legal counsel at his own expense after being spurned by the system. He can barely walk because of his back problems but was awarded a disability rating of only 20 percent, meaning the VA thinks he still has 80 percent of his normal function.

Mr. Massey is appealing the ruling, but the process is time-consuming and requires frequent appointments at far-away military hospitals. His wife, Georgia, must schedule time off work in order to drive her husband to the appointments since he cannot drive himself.

Such problems are not uncommon, said Jim Strickland, one of the two men who run VAwatchdog.org. “It is routine for the majority of people to have some sort of major glitch with filing their claim,” he said.

Mr. Massey, whose military awards include the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star and numerous Air Medals, first hurt his back while serving as a door gunner in Vietnam when his helicopter crashed from engine failure in November 1966.

He reinjured his back twice during his 20-year Army career, once in 1972 lifting a heavy roll-up door of a helicopter hangar and more severely in 1984 while extracting a fellow soldier from concertina wire during a field exercise.

“Helicopters have vibrations, beats,” said Mr. Massey, who served as a helicopter pilot and test pilot for 13 years. “It vibrates your head and just beats your neck and back continuously up and down and side to side.”

Since 2003, Mr. Massey has undergone 10 surgeries, five of which have been on his lower back. Because of the “horror stories” he had heard about the VA application process, he said, he delayed filing for service-connected disability benefits until June 2007.

He was given a disability rating of just 20 percent even though he has extreme difficulty walking and requires strong pain medication, making it hard for him to seek a job. “I’m basically housebound,” Mr. Massey said.

He and his wife are now appealing, a process requiring tremendous time and effort. Mrs. Massey, who keeps meticulous records, said she took her husband to 69 doctor appointments in 2008 alone.

“One time, they just measured the scars on my back,” Mr. Massey said, after traveling 240 miles to be evaluated by the VA.

Mr. Massey was notified by mail about when and where to appear next and was not given any choices. Paperwork from his VA medical center warned: “Failure to report for any scheduled examination could have a detrimental effect on the outcome of your claim.”

In August, Mr. Massey received a mind-boggling letter from the VA.

“We propose to rate you as incompetent for VA purposes,” it said. “Evidence from your VA psychiatric examination dated February 6, 2008, revealed you stated that your short-term memory is quite poor, and your wife often makes you a list that you at times will even forget to read or follow through on.

“You said that you lose objects regularly, including telephone, camera, keys, and stated this has been going on for the past six to seven years. The examiner stated on the basis of this evaluation, you appeared minimally to partially capable of managing your VA benefits.”

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