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Veteran talks about Iraq War anniversary

By Rebecca Pepin, rpepin@wcyb.com
Published On: Mar 21 2013 10:08:59 PM CDT
BRISTOL, Va. -

 A recent report released by the Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered a backlog of about 900,000 claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Their records indicate veterans wait, on average, more than 315 days for benefits, not the 273 days the VA reports.

In several cities the backlog is even worse, forcing many veterans to pay expenses out of pocket while they wait. 

A veteran from Lebanon, Virginia, who was injured in Iraq, spoke out today about the delay in benefits and the Iraq War anniversary.

Sgt. Joe Santolla served with the National Guard's 266th Military Police Company out of Manassas.  His job was to train Iraqi police officers.  His training from his civilian job, with the Virginia State Police, helped him with the efforts.

"I had a special skills set that helped teach some of these guys, and helped save their lives really, " said Sgt. Santolla.  He added that the Iraqis seemed grateful the U.S. troops were there.
     
"It's dangerous being a police officer in America, could you imagine being a police officer in a place like Iraq, where they actually have roadside bombs, suicide bombs, snipers, I couldn't imagine working under those conditions," said Santolla.

In 2009 Santolla was the target of a roadside bomb. It went off right beside his truck while he was traveling with a convoy.  He received a massive concussion.  Santolla still suffers blinding headaches and he has permanent hearing loss.

It took about a year and a half to process Santolla's disability claim, and that's considered quick.  He was put on the fast track for being a Purple Heart recipient, but it still wasn't easy.

" We had to give medical records, we sent those in three times.  And dealing with bureaucracy was terrible and I know some veterans just get so fed up with it, they just give up, literally giving up the benefits they've earned," said Santolla.

Sgt. Santolla said one of the issues is a lack of communication between agencies.  

As for the Iraq War itself, Santolla said he knows a lot of people now feel we should never have gone in, but he is hopeful that our American service members who gave their lives and were injured, did not do so in vain.