More than 5 million veterans, as well as some active-duty service members, will not receive crucial benefits after Nov. 1 if the government shutdown continues for much longer, the secretary of Veterans Affairs said Wednesday.
Eric Shinseki, a retired Army general, told members of Congress on Wednesday that the ongoing government shutdown affects his department's ability to dispense compensation, employment and pension payments, vocational and rehabilitation services, as well as education under the GI Bill.
This affects 5.18 million beneficiaries, he told the House Veterans Affairs Committee, including spouses and children who have lost military family members.
"By and large, our patient population is older, sicker and in need of our support," Shinseki said. "For a large portion of them, our compensation or beneficiary checks are crucial to their ability to have order in their lives."
Shinseki, who retired as Army chief of staff in 2003, told the committee the population of veterans and service members faces a much more dire time than the last government shutdown in 1996, when the U.S. was enjoying a period of relative peace. He assumed his cabinet position at a time when the backlog for veterans payments extended as far back as two years or more for some potential beneficiaries.
There were roughly 23 million living veterans as of 2010, according to the department. Roughly 2 million have served in support of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
That strain peaked in March of this year. Shinseki said Wednesday only 1 percent remains of the applicants who had been waiting for more than two years to claim their VA benefits. Roughly 20 percent remains of those who have waited for more than one year. Those should all be completed by the end of 2013, he said.
The retired general first entered the military through West Point, and served in Vietnam where he lost part of his foot to a land mine. He left his active duty position following disputes with then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other top officials in the George W. Bush administration over how many troops the war in Iraq would require. Shinseki advocated for hundreds of thousands.
"The longer we go, then the start-up will just take longer," he said Wednesday. "I will not be able to pay all those beneficiaries who are expecting those checks."
Funeral services will also be delayed, Shinseki said, as military cemeteries have transferred to a "modified burial schedule."
The VA will continue taking care of families "and burying our honored, but it won't be at the rate we had planned or will like," he said.
Shinseki thanked veterans groups during the hearing, who he says have helped advocate for their rights. Alex Nicholson, the legislative director for the IAVA, was present at the hearing on Wednesday and submitted testimony for the record.
"Veterans are hurting," he said. "They need Washington to end the shutdown so they can receive and benefit from the services and support they have earned."
Improvements to the VA backlog could slow down or even reverse, said Nicholson, if the shutdown continues.