MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
More than two million Americans fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the vast majority of U.S. veterans, about 20 million, served in earlier wars - World War II, Korea, Vietnam. And they are the vets who filled up the hall today at the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
JOHN HAMILTON: Comrades, I present to you a fellow combat veteran.
BLOCK: That's Vietnam vet John Hamilton, the head of the VFW, introducing another Vietnam vet.
HAMILTON: The recipient of two Purple Hearts and three Bronze Stars for Valor, the former chief of staff and now the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki.
BLOCK: Secretary Shinseki used today's speech to talk about one of the biggest challenges facing the VA: the backlog of medical claims.
NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Eric Shinseki is now the longest-serving Secretary of Veterans Affairs in history but this past year was a bruiser. Members of Congress from both parties called for his resignation. The main reason, that backlog of veterans' benefit claims. A year ago, Shinseki promised the VFW that the backlog would be drastically reduced by now. And he pledged then that he'd be staying on at the VA until the job was done. Today, he repeated that pledge.
SECRETARY ERIC SHINSEKI: No veteran should wait to receive benefits that have been earned. The claims backlog is the reason I agreed to continue my service as secretary. And we're not going to leave this for another secretary or president to wrestle with.
LAWRENCE: For most of the past year the backlog actually got worse. The official definition of the backlog: Any application for a health claim that sits for more than 125 days. Veterans have been waiting sometimes two years to get their health claims resolved. The number of backlogged claims hit 600,000.
SHINSEKI: The backlog is now declining. We are somewhat behind where we predicted and would have wanted to be, but that percentage will shift downwards quickly.
LAWRENCE: The numbers have improved lately. That's thanks to a new electronic claims system, Shinseki says. The VA also cleared hundreds of thousands of new claims from Vietnam vets who may have been exposed to Agent Orange, something Shinseki says was the right thing to do even if it added to the backlog temporarily.
Critics say Shinseki hasn't done enough to fix the VA's bloated bureaucracy. Darin Selnik is a former Bush appointee at the VA, now with the group Concerned Veterans for America.
DARIN SELNIK: There's no accountability. So, no matter how big the problem gets, nobody gets fired, there's messing around with the numbers, there's lack of transparency. He's the guy in charge. If he won't do it then there's no one else to do it and he needs to go.
TOM TARRANTINO: Getting rid of Secretary Shinseki or any of the undersecretaries would be one of the worst things you could do for the backlog.
LAWRENCE: Tom Tarrantino is with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
TARRANTINO: Secretary Shinseki a very good internal manager. The problem is that nobody knows that outside the small community of those of us who do that because it's our job to know that.
LAWRENCE: Tarrantino says Shinseki hasn't been a great communicator, especially to the veterans suffering with wounds from war and tangling with VA red tape, while they wait and wait on their claims. He says Shinseki's plan on the backlog does finally appear to be working but it'll take a few more months to be sure.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.