Soldiers Back From Iraq, Unable to Get Help They Need

ByABC News

DONNA, Texas, March 9, 2006 — -- Eugene Simpson doesn't like to complain. Paralyzed in a bomb attack in Iraq, his initial care was excellent, but ever since then he has felt adrift.

"There are thousands of soldiers in worse condition than I am, and they're OK," he said. "They're making it."

Getting to the nearest Veterans Administration hospital that can best treat his paralysis means a three-hour roundtrip, and the VA isn't paying for therapists closer to home. So he does without.

The numbers of war veterans enrolled in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has continued to grow, and many feel the strain.

"I want to excel and advance and get stronger," said Simpson. "But at the same time, I don't want to pull a muscle or do the wrong exercise that can hurt a certain part of my body, because then I'll be helpless."

In Texas, a group of veterans staged a protest march covering the distance to the nearest VA hospital: 250 miles.

"[It takes] four-and-a-half to five hours .. one way," said Vietnam War vet Polo Uriesti.

Uriesti said his father, a veteran of World War II, suffers a greater hardship. But he said the headaches and flashbacks of post-traumatic stress still flare up without warning.

"I just ... it chokes me up," said Uriesti.

The VA acknowledged some veterans suffer those problems but said most do not.

"Last year, 97 percent of veterans who came to us for a primary care appointment got that appointment within 30 days, and 95 percent of those who came for an acute care appointment got it within 30 days," said R. James Nicholson, secretary of Veterans Affairs.

But an inspector general's audit found real problems with the way the VA has come up with those numbers. The audit found that some VA staff, feeling "pressured," actually fudged the numbers, and error rates were as high as 61 percent.

In Atlanta, one veteran who the VA said got an appointment within a week actually waited nearly a year.

Another veteran in Boston who reported seeing a VA doctor within hours actually waited 472 days.

The VA said it has been steadily improving the system, but many veterans' groups worry the situation will only get worse as new Iraq veterans keep pouring in.

"The numbers are simply going to overwhelm them, and they are not going to have the proper funds to deal with these folks on a long-term, chronic basis," said David Gorman of the advocacy group Disabled American Veterans.

Uriesti worries what his two sons, set to serve again in Iraq, may face if they need care, given the gaps in the VA system so many veterans now face.

ABC News' Erin Hayes filed this report for "World News Tonight."

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