Veterans who showed up at the Baltimore offices of the VA had many things to gripe about — an 800 number that never seemed to work, a confusing process for getting benefits for PTSD and a feeling that the process of applying for help robbed them of their dignity.
"These are veterans," said Joel Quinn, 56. "We're not asking for something we don't deserve."
Soaking up the complaints on a weekend in late December was Antoine Waller, who took over the Baltimore benefits office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs last year. He took the verbal blows from the audience patiently, responding to each veteran who spoke.
One man described a progressive disability and a very real sense of time running out as he waited for his benefits claim to be processed.
"We understand our actions have an impact on your life," Waller told him.
Waller came into the job in the fall to confront serious and ongoing problems. Veterans' disability claims in Baltimore have been mired in one of the largest and longest backlogs of any office in the country and an inspector general's report found that thousands of sensitive documents at the office had been stored improperly.
Moreover, 2014 was a bad year for the VA across the board, with revelations that staff members at some hospitals had altered waiting lists to hide problems from their superiors. Data released by the VA indicated long waits in Baltimore for veterans who wanted to schedule their first primary care appointment.
Robert McDonald, the businessman that President Barack Obama appointed to replace embattled VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, outlined a plan in November to repair the relationship between the department and veterans. It included the formation of a new customer service unit and advisory councils to help the department.
McDonald called on employees to offer ideas to make the department run more smoothly.
At the Baltimore meeting, Waller, who does not have responsibility for the VA hospitals in Maryland, asked veterans for more time while promising to restore their trust in his agency. The problems built up over a long time, Waller said, and could take a while to solve.
"I would hope that you would give us a second chance, or a third chance," he told one veteran.
VA staff members have the challenging job of assessing a veteran's pain and suffering to reach a legal determination of the financial benefits to which he or she is entitled. The department and the veteran might not always agree, Waller told the audience, but he wants veterans to always understand the decisions it makes.
The Baltimore Sun revealed the Baltimore VA office's dismal performance in processing disability claims in a series of articles in 2013. The office was then the slowest and most prone to error in the country. Officials vowed to make improvements, but figures released at the end of December showed that the office was still the slowest, on average, to process claims.
The VA aims to complete a claim within 125 days; in Baltimore it takes three times that long. In an interview, Waller said the figures are skewed because his team is tackling the oldest cases first, bumping up the average.
In all, about 9,500 Maryland veterans have claims waiting, and the local office is handling only about 6,500 of them. Two out of three claims now being worked on here are older than 125 days, according to the VA data.
Waller said he is optimistic that 2015 will be the year the backlog is eliminated. "I look forward to meeting that goal," he said.
Waller said the VA is moving to a paperless system for processing benefits claims, which will mean files can be moved between offices more easily. If some regions have spare capacity, they can pick up the load of busier offices.
Waller came to Baltimore after leading offices in Kansas and Minnesota, which are performing well, according to the VA data.
Members of Congress from Maryland met with McDonald in early December to assess the Baltimore office. They expressed optimism after the meeting.
"While a lot of work needs to be done to address these concerns and build back trust among Maryland's veterans, based on our conversation with Secretary McDonald yesterday, I am confident that progress is being made," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat.
At the meeting with veterans in late December, some spoke up in recognition of the work the office is doing. Garland Williamson, a member of Gov.-elect Larry Hogan's transition team, said many veterans did not show up at the town hall meeting because they were happy with the service they received.
Williamson said he hoped to see more consistent leadership at the Baltimore office.
"People come in, lots of nice words, they're here but 10 minutes and they leave," he said.
Waller, who grew up on the Eastern Shore and served in the Army, said he was excited to come back to Baltimore, where his career with the VA began 24 years ago.
"My memories when I started here were of an office that had amazing opportunities to serve veterans," Waller said. He said he hopes to end his career where he began it.