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A veteran's two-year wait for benefits


When Gary "Zach" Zacharatos first returned to San Francisco after a four-year deployment during the Vietnam War in 1972, he didn't sleep well.

"I had dreams — vivid, violent ones that would wake me up repeatedly," said the 62-year-old man as he sat on his couch in his West Street home — clutching his dog Lacy closely to his chest as he remembered his nightmares. "But it was the '70s and I was a Marine at heart. I didn't ask for help because that's not what we did."

Instead, Zacharatos suffered in silence for many years, often sleepwalking and waking up with no memory of the conversations he'd had or the combat scenes he'd reenacted while asleep.

It wasn't until 2004 that Zacharatos finally sought help — after he experienced such severe anxiety, depression and sleep deprivation that he had a complete mental and physical breakdown. By then, Zacharatos' condition had gotten so bad that he could no longer work, let alone get out of bed. After a local psychiatrist diagnosed him with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Zacharatos and his friend, Linda Pickenheim, began to search for assistance.

Little did they know that their request for veteran's benefits, which was first filed in February of 2010, would take almost two and a half years to be approved. During that time, Zacharatos lost the home his grandparents had left to him, most of his belongings and was days away from living out of his car before his claim was finally approved in April of last year.

Zacharatos is one of more than 19,000 veterans in the North Bay who has waited more than a year to receive veteran benefits. The Center for Investigative Reporting recently found that the average wait time for veterans who file claims at the Veterans Affairs Oakland office — which handles Sonoma County's veteran benefit claims — is more than a year and a half.

Oakland's VA office currently receives approximately 2,300 new claims per month and has approximately 24,000 veterans waiting for benefits.

Marc Deal, chief operations officer of the Santa Rosa-based North Bay Veterans Resource Centers of America, said that a shortage of claims processors and a large number of veterans returning from Afghanistan has lead to the extreme backlog occurring nationwide at the VA.

"While the VA is currently hiring new staff and releasing funds to help out with the troops returning home from Afghanistan, the need is still far outweighing the resources," said Deal.

Locally, several organizations are working hard to assist Sonoma County veterans. The Sonoma County Veterans Service Office, for example, is working on veterans claims as quickly as possible.

"No one should try to obtain benefits alone," said Chris Bingham, the county's lead Veterans Service Officer. "Veterans need a skilled, knowledgeable advocate who understands the complicated process. There is currently a big push at the VA to finish all claims more than two years old by June 30, so our office is wrapping up as many as we can."

But Bingham acknowledged that the backlog and wait times are severe for the approximate 33,000 veterans in Sonoma County, as well as veterans nationwide.

Petaluma's Committee on the Shelterless, or COTS, offers eight permanent housing units for homeless veterans in the county. CEO Mike Johnson said that for every resident they have, there are another two veterans waiting for the program's assistance.

"It's never enough to keep up with the need," said Johnson.

The North Bay Veterans Resource Centers of America has an eight-bed transitional home in Petaluma. Homeless veterans who were honorably discharged can stay at the facility for up to two years and receive a myriad of services, including mental health counseling, employment assistance, and addiction counseling.

The Sonoma County Vets Connect also offers local health clinics in Petaluma and PTSD counseling and support.

But unfortunately, none of these services can speed up claims processing. "When we first applied, we were told it could take as much as nine months to process Zach's disability claim," said Pickenheim. "Instead, it took 28 months and it was pure hell," said Pickenheim, who had been laid off when her company merged with another local business. "We were on food stamps, struggling with Section 8 housing, getting kicked out of places for nonpayment because Zach's (Zacharatos') benefits hadn't come through. We would call and ask about the delay, but all the VA's office could say was they were short-staffed and backlogged on claims."

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)