Moves afoot to keep veterans from getting left behind
by Christina Villacorte
After serving multiple tours of duty in Iraq, dodging mortars and roadside bombs, Army Cpl. Stephen Fox came home to Tarzana with a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and a host of additional ailments.
“We got blown up, like, every day, and then there was other stuff, too,” said the 26-year old former infantryman, recalling the time he was among the first responders to arrive after an explosion in Kirkuk that left 80 dead and 170 wounded.
“It was terrible,” he said quietly.
Even though the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was well aware of his returning condition — providing him with free medical treatment at its Sepulveda Ambulatory Care Center — it still took two years to process his claim for disability benefits.
For most veterans, however, that is the norm.
Of the 700,000 nationwide claims pending before the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, almost 400,000 are considered backlogged, according to Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, who sits on the House of Representatives' Veterans Affairs Committee.
The VA is stretched thin, she said, because of the high volume of claims being filed by those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many for multiple conditions.
The department is supposed to address claims within 125 days, but California Department of Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Keith Boylan said the average wait time in Los Angeles is closer to 500 days.
“CalVet offers many of the benefits, but it's predicated on the veterans first receiving disability from the federal government,” he said. “We realized we needed to get involved.”
In September, CalVet and the VA signed a memorandum of understanding to expedite the process.
Under the Joint Claims Initiative, CalVet would provide each of the VA's regional offices in Los Angeles, San Diego and Oakland with 12-member “strike teams” to look at claims pending for 125 days or longer and prepare them for adjudication.
The federal shutdown, however, interrupted efforts to hire and train those strike teams, so to date only about six or seven people — about a fifth of the total required by the initiative — have been able to begin reviewing claims.
“Once our folks are in there and are able to access the claims, we can probably review 1,500 to 2,000 claims a month,” he said. “Hopefully, that will bring (the wait time) down to about a year or two.”
In the meantime, frustration mounts.
Marine Cpl. Chris Duarte, 35, works as a claims assistant and liaison navigator with the Los Angeles County Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. “One of my clients now is the widow of an Iraq veteran who passed away six months ago,” he said.
“She's still waiting for his benefits to go through. In the meantime, she has no income and is on the verge of being homeless. It's horrible.”
Fox's second application for disability claims — this time for service-related injuries to his shoulders, knees and ankles — has been pending for two years.
Fortunately, he said, he was able to support himself by going to school under the GI Bill and by earning $8 an hour as an intern at the Chatsworth Veterans Resource Center.
Asked his feelings on efforts to expedite the processing of veterans' benefit claims, he responded, “I'm not hopeful.”
Recounting a military buddy's experience, he said, “I have a friend who got shot three times in the abdomen and two times in the leg. He lost his leg, and it still took two years for his disability claim to go through.
“He had to rely on the kindness of family and friends because he wasn't able to work — he was in a wheelchair. After all that happened to him, I can't understand why the VA took so long to make a decision about his benefits.”
The VA has set a goal of ending the backlog by 2015.
Brownley is among several lawmakers pushing the agenda on a federal level. “The House is considering a package of more than 10 bills aimed at tackling the VA claims backlog step by step.”
One such measure would require the Defense Department to dispatch electronic health records more quickly to the VA, while another seeks to automate the processing of certain claims.
“On the battlefield, the military pledges to leave no soldier behind,” Brownley said in an email. “As a nation, we must pledge that when they return home, we leave no veteran behind.”
In spite of all he's been through, does Fox have any regrets about enlisting? “Not at all,” he said. “I think I made a difference. I'm very proud of what I did.”
Man arrested in connection with girlfriend's stabbing death five years ago
by Kelly Goff
A man who allegedly fled the country after murdering his live-in girlfriend by stabbing her to death with a sword in front of their four small children five years ago in their Lancaster apartment has been apprehended and returned to the United States to face charges, authorities said Saturday.
Jesus Humberto “Chuey” Canales, 34, was detained by Mexican authorities in a small town in Jalisco, Mexico, on Thursday and released into the custody of U.S. Marshals, who flew him to Los Angeles on Friday.
Canales was booked on suspicion of felony murder and child endangerment Saturday morning and remains in custody in lieu of $1.4 million bail, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff's department records.
Detectives allege Canales killed 26-year-old Lucy Preciado during a domestic dispute July 12, 2008. Her family members said she told them in the days before she died that she was planning on leaving Canales.
Her killing attracted national attention when investigators released a recording of the 911 call placed by their then-9-year-old daughter.
“My dad just stabbed my mom ... with a sword. He's leaving right now. Please hurry. I don't want my mommy to die. I'm scared. I want to go to my grandma's,” the girl can be heard saying on the recording.
At the time of the slaying, Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said the recording was “so horrendous it made a couple of the homicide detectives cry.”
He described the scene as one of the worst many investigators had seen.
Canales fled Lancaster after the murder, and was initially tracked to New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and then his native El Salvador. A few days after the killing they obtained an arrest warrant, but he evaded authorities despite repeated pleas from Preciado's family that he turn himself in and an onslaught of media attention, including several segments on “America's Most Wanted.”
Canales spent more than five years on the run from authorities before detectives located him in Jalisco.
He is scheduled to be arraigned Monday in Antelope Valley Superior Court.
Anyone with information is asked to call Sgt. Kevin Lloyd or Det. Jeff Lesline with the Sheriff's homicide bureau at 323-890-5500.
Seeking Safety: Fear is the norm, unity the response in Fayetteville
For too long, living with crime and the fear that accompanies it has been the norm in Fayetteville.
Perhaps for most of us, the fear is little more than a nagging concern, enough to prompt us to install an alarm system, avoid certain parts of the city at certain times, even buy a gun for protection. For too many, though, it is a deeper worry that keeps us trapped in our homes, afraid and angry about what has happened to our community.
There was a time, maybe in our memory, maybe only in the stories told by our parents, when such fear barely existed. A time when we left our doors unlocked, when we didn't worry about where our children were playing, when our schools didn't need metal detectors.
But in the years since then, we have adjusted to the crime. We've accepted 4,000 break-ins, 8,000 thefts, 1,000 robberies and assaults a year as an unpleasant part of life in Fayetteville. We've shrugged and, with a survivor's wry pride, called our home "Fayettenam."
But it is increasingly clear that we are tired of adjusting. From the Police Department, from City Hall, from election campaigns and from community forums, we've heard a consistent message: We're fed up with crime. We want answers.
Today, The Fayetteville Observer joins the search for solutions. We are calling our effort "Seeking Safety." That's what people really want, to feel safe in their own community.
Over the years, our staff has become adept at a particular type of reporting: We can dig into issues, expose problems, explain why things are broken.
We are, as our newspaper masthead suggests, an observer. It is a role we are proud of and which we will continue to play.
But this crime problem demands a new approach. We have to be willing to get off the sidelines, to do more than just report all the things that are wrong, that are creating Fayetteville's climate of fear.
So we are going to spend the next year looking at crime from a new angle. We will examine programs and efforts here and across the country, looking for strategies that are working. Our focus will be on finding real-world solutions that are applicable to Fayetteville. We will seek ideas from experts and from people who know what it is like to live in crime-ridden communities.
Our reporting will ask tough questions and challenge leaders when they talk about obstacles rather than opportunities.
One of the reasons I've spent 26 years - all of my adult working life - in newsrooms is that I believe newspapers can make a difference. Specifically, I believe our newspaper can make a difference in this community.
We are going to put that belief to the test over the next year. Because on this story, we are aiming to create momentum and action. We want to help drag that burden of fear off Fayetteville.
Greg Barnes, who has won numerous awards as a writer and an editor, will lead our reporting effort. He already has spent weeks talking to city leaders, police, school officials, mentors and crime victims, listening to their stories and ideas.
Today's story, laying out the problem and the need for the community to come together to work on it, launches our project. Next month, he will have the first installment in our search for meaningful solutions.
Police reporter Nancy McCleary also will be a regular contributor to the project. Beginning in late November and every two weeks after that, she will be sharing tips on personal safety and ideas about how residents across the community can get involved in crime-prevention efforts.
We're doing all of this in a partnership with WRAL-TV. That partnership will combine the best of both of our news organizations to share the search for solutions with a larger audience than either of us could do separately.
This project, this year spent seeking answers, is going to depend as much on you as it is on our efforts.
Your stories and ideas will help make it meaningful. Your willingness to step up when solutions are apparent will give it life beyond our newspaper pages.
Earlier this month, at a rally organized by ministers to call for an end to violence in the city, Police Chief Harold Medlock said it is going to take the whole community coming together to make this a safer city.
With "Seeking Safety," we intend to be part of that process.