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September 30th, 2012
05:32 PM ET

Hundreds of thousands of war vets still waiting for health benefits

By Randi Kaye and Scott Bronstein, CNN

Phoenix (CNN) – Mike Rioux can't go to the grocery store without making a list, even for a single item.

He can't drive without gripping the steering wheel so hard his knuckles turn white. And he can't stand any longer than 30 minutes because of severe back pain.

This is Rioux's life after Afghanistan, where firefights and a roadside bomb blast left him with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

His ears still ring from the explosions. He suffers from vertigo, headaches, insomnia and nightmares. He has terrible anxiety, evident in an interview with CNN - Rioux could hardly sit still, and his memory loss and inability to concentrate meant questions had to be repeated at times.

"I need to discover who I am again," he said.

As a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, Rioux most recently was deployed in 2010 to one of the most dangerous spots in Afghanistan. There he survived firefights and blasts and witnessed much carnage in Paktia province, near the volatile Afghan-Pakistan border.

After returning home, Rioux faced a much different battle, one that neither he nor his wife, Maggie, expected.

Confusion is 'monumental'

The Department of Veterans Affairs said it is on track to process 1 million disability claims this year.

With the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan winding down, the VA is sorting through a backlog of more than 860,000 disability claims from American veterans. More than a quarter of those vets - 228,000 - have been waiting for a year or more.

FULL STORY

Filed under: Health • How we live • Veterans