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One-quarter of Iraq, Afghanistan veterans filing injury claims

WASHINGTON—More than a quarter of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have filed injury claims with the government, according to an internal Department of Veterans Affairs report.

Of the nearly 690,000 veterans who served in those combat zones, more than 180,000 had filed claims by the end of last year, the report showed.

That's more than a 50 percent increase over where claims stood near the end of 2005, when the number of claims from the war was 115,000, according to the VA.

Veterans advocates said that the numbers likely would continue to climb, and not just because the number of troops has been escalating. Some soldiers wait years to file injury claims, they said, while some injuries, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, can take years to surface.

Steve Smithson, deputy director for claims at the American Legion, said the numbers "seem like a lot, but there may be a lot more. It's a cost of war that we don't always figure into the budget and we don't always realize. This is also a cost, taking care of the wounded, and we're going to be seeing more of this as the war continues."

VA spokesman Jim Benson said that every injury claim by an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran might not be a result of their deployment. The injury could have occurred either before or after they served overseas, he said.

The VA awards compensation for health problems when veterans can prove their injuries were related to their military service. Like the military's health care system for active-duty troops, the VA is under intense scrutiny in light of the treatment scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Several blue-ribbon panels are looking into how to ensure that both veterans and troops face fewer bureaucratic obstacles to treatment and benefits.

"I think Walter Reed is the tip of the iceberg," said Democratic Rep. Bob Filner of California, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "What we saw is they were deliberately trying to keep the claims down."

The VA has granted 132,000 of the 180,000 benefit claims, which have been filed since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, according to the report. The balance includes claims that have either been denied or are pending.

In 2006, the department signed off on nearly 57,000 claims—an average of more than 150 per day.

"This is good news that VA is processing so many more claims," said Paul Sullivan, veterans advocate and former VA project manager. "However, it's ominous that the claims activity continues to surge."