Jack Cornelius sat in a wingback chair in his living room in the small town of Hinton, Okla., pointed a .22-caliber Sears, Roebuck & Co. rifle at his left temple and pulled the trigger.
When his wife, Hinton Mayor Sheryl Ann Cornelius, arrived home that evening, he was slumped in his chair, still clutching the gun.
Forty years after serving during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, Jack remained tortured by the war. In the years before his death, the 61-year-old U.S. Army veteran downed prodigious amounts of vodka, drove his truck to random locations and talked of dead bodies floating in the water.
But even though Jack received an honorable discharge and sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder before his suicide in July 2009, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied his widow’s request to help pay for his burial and declined to grant the monthly compensation intended for survivors of veterans with deaths linked to military service.
By the time the agency reversed itself a year later, Sheryl had lost her home to foreclosure and racked up $700 in interest on a high-interest loan she’d taken out to pay for the funeral.
The 58-year-old widow speaks with a soft Oklahoma accent. In the aftermath of two strokes, she moves slowly. And she has a strong sense of justice, rooted in her Southern Baptist upbringing.
“I needed the money,” Sheryl said, “but it was more important to me that the government admit that his death was caused by the war, that someone take responsibility for it.”
Internal VA documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting reveal an escalating number of widows and widowers are waiting for burial benefits and survivors’ pensions – breaking America’s final promise to its veterans.
Congressional and media scrutiny followed CIR’s March report that internal documents showed the number of veterans waiting more than a year for disability compensation had increased by 2,000 percent under President Barack Obama, from about 11,000 in 2009 to 245,000 in December.
Those documents also show that the bureaucratic logjam follows veterans to the grave. The ranks of widows, widowers, children and parents waiting for a nominal burial benefit – between $600 and $2,000 – nearly tripled during Obama’s first term: from 23,000 to 65,000.
The average wait time for a funeral subsidy had reached 207 days in December, from two months four years before.
In addition, 50,000 survivors were waiting an average of 229 days to find out whether they qualified for a pension – twice as long as in 2009. That part of the backlog is especially tragic, observers say, because most of the survivors are elderly widows who depended on their husbands’ VA pensions before their deaths.
“My mother had to get down to her last dime, literally, before they came through,”said Susan Landau, whose 94-year-old mother, Helen Fisher, suffers from severe Alzheimer’s disease. She lives in San Bernardino County, Calif., and waited more than a year for the VA to approve a nursing home subsidy for survivors of wartime veterans.
Finch’s husband, John Fisher, died four years ago. He received a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars for his service in World War II.
In a statement, the VA repeated its current mantra about all benefit delays, saying they were unacceptable, but offered no explanation for why the number of survivors waiting for benefits had ballooned.
Unlike the rise in pending disability claims, partly tied to the large numbers of veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan and diseases newly connected to Agent Orange, there has been no substantial increase in survivors requesting burial benefits or pensions.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, the Florida Republican who leads the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, singled out the backlog of burial benefits as particularly egregious.
“VA has continually demonstrated an inability to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Miller said. “With so much of the department’s attention focused on eliminating the disability benefits backlog, burial benefits claims are languishing.”
The agency countered with a statement saying a December agreement among the VA, Social Security Administration and Internal Revenue Service to automate pensioners’ income data collection will free up staff to work on the backlog of survivors’ claims. It said the arrangement already is making a difference.
Treatment for PTSD
Jack Cornelius never asked the VA to compensate him for post-traumatic stress disorder. But three months before he died, he went to the VA for help. Sheryl Cornelius and her three adult children had confronted him, demanding that he stop drinking and seek treatment.
At Oklahoma City’s VA hospital, doctors prescribed a series of psychotropic drugs, and, according to hospital records, issued a directive that he be “closely watched” by the health care system.
On June 11, 2009, at Jack’s final appointment before his death, psychiatrist Lorenzo Araujo wrote that he had started drinking again and that “his PTSD symptoms were exacerbated and he is having frequent nightmares, irritable, and at times feeling violent.”
So the family was shocked when, three months after Jack shot himself, the VA refused to subsidize his funeral or provide Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, a monthly stipend for survivors of veterans whose deaths are linked to military service.
In its three-page decision, the agency said that while Jack’s unit sustained casualties when it came under repeated mortar attack during the Tet Offensive, the “available evidence is insufficient to confirm that the veteran actually experienced a stressful event during his military service.”
In its decision, the VA said there was no proof that Jack’s PTSD was caused by the war and no proof that his death, the “self inflicted rifle wound to the head,” was linked to PTSD.
Instead of granting Sheryl a $2,000 burial subsidy and a $1,215-a-month benefits check, the agency approved a $539-a-month death pension available to the surviving spouse of any low-income wartime veteran.
That wasn’t enough to keep Sheryl from losing the home she and Jack had shared. And it filled her with rage, because she wanted someone, anyone, in the government to take responsibility for Jack’s death.
In a statement responding to CIR, the VA stood by that initial decision: “Mr. Cornelius’s death certificate did not indicate that his mental disability caused or contributed to his death and VA issued a rating decision based on this information.”
Troubles kept hidden
Sheryl was Jack’s third wife. His first marriage ended almost as soon as he came home from Vietnam in 1969. His second lasted 23 years but, in retrospect, may have been damaged from the start by the lingering trauma of war.
“I really don’t know if I was madly in love with him or not. I was 19 and was ready to get out of the house,” said Cindy Cornelius, who kept Jack’s name even after the divorce because they had raised three children together.
When they first met, Cindy said Jack wined and dined her. A gregarious man with a Fu Manchu mustache, he took her out for lobster dinners and drove her around Oklahoma City in his gray Corvette.
But almost as soon as they married, Cindy saw a part of Jack that he’d kept hidden during their courtship. Jack’s flashbacks and nightmares were so intense that he almost always slept on the couch. He smoked marijuana constantly. He never talked about Vietnam when he was sober, but when he drank, he would rail about the war, usually about dead bodies he saw in the river during the Tet Offensive.
Jack put together a scrapbook of pictures of himself in uniform and pasted in a 1979 article published by the Associated Press on a VA-commissioned poll that found a majority of Americans believed Vietnam veterans were “suckers, having to risk their lives in the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
In January 1997, Cindy and Jack divorced. Five months later, he and Sheryl married in Las Vegas.
Sheryl had recently moved her family to Hinton, about an hour’s drive west of Oklahoma City, looking for a fresh start as her first marriage fell apart.
In Hinton, she found a sense of community. As an assistant to the town clerk, she chatted with residents who came in to obtain a permit or pay a water bill.
“The whole town kind of funnels through the clerk’s office, and there are a lot of older people who just want to sit there and stay awhile,” her son Jim Ray said. “Mom would put her stuff down and talk to them, because she has a certain kind of kindness and patience.”
In 2005, she ran for City Council with a slogan that paraphrased the words of 18th-century Christian theologian John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, for as many people as you can, for as long as you possibly can.”
Jack campaigned hard for her, and she won in a landslide, becoming the first woman elected to Hinton’s City Council in 100 years.
Life at home was good, too. Jack adopted Sheryl’s children as his own. The couple bought a decrepit blacksmith shop next door to their house and demolished it to make room for a large garden, which Jack tended when he wasn’t providing security and cleaning services to area banks.
Jack still slept on the couch most of the time, but he stopped drinking and smoking pot. For the first six years of their marriage, Sheryl said, everything seemed fine.
Then, after Jack’s father died in 2003, he started to come unglued. He resumed drinking, and Sheryl began to worry about whether it was safe to have guns in the house.
Letter becomes window into combat
Jack Cornelius had what can only be called an All-American childhood. His father, Jack Sr., owned a popular Oklahoma City steakhouse and was involved in local politics. When Jack Jr. was in elementary school, his family bought a home in a suburban development with a distinct feature: Every house came with a pony.
That idyllic upbringing was shattered by the Vietnam War. Eager to get some choice in his assignment, Jack Jr. didn’t wait to be drafted. Hoping to avoid the worst of the combat, he enlisted in the Army in 1966 and joined a military transportation battalion as a stevedore. Almost as soon as he arrived at the port of Cat Lai, however, North Vietnam launched a campaign of surprise attacks during an agreed-upon cease-fire for the Tet, or lunar new year, in 1968.
He described one attack in a letter to his father, which he mailed to the steakhouse so that his mother and young wife wouldn’t see it.
“I know I have to write someone about this,” the letter begins. “If I don’t write and get it off my chest I’ll go out of my mind.” Over four handwritten pages, Jack described how 30 mortar rounds hit his compound overnight, along with heavy small-arms fire. No one was killed, but 15 Americans were wounded.
“Somehow, I hit something or something hit me and split my big toe down the middle,” he wrote. Blood was everywhere.
This letter, which Sheryl found in a sealed envelope while cleaning out a box six months after Jack died, became the key to unlocking her survivors’ benefits.
It offered proof that Jack did face combat while in Vietnam and evidence, written in his own handwriting, that he found the incident terrifying. Those were crucial ingredients in connecting his PTSD to military service.
Sheryl got the county medical examiner to revise the investigative report on Jack’s death to add “post-traumatic stress disorder” as a “significant medical condition” that contributed to his suicide. She approached Hinton’s police chief, Shannon Pack, who wrote a declaration stating that Jack urged him “not to let helicopters fly over Hinton because it made him have flashbacks of Vietnam.”
She filed a fresh petition with the Department of Veterans Affairs, and on May 20, 2010, the agency reversed itself and declared Jack’s death related to his military service. Two months later, more than a year after his death, the VA cut a $2,000 check to cover some of his funeral costs and soon after bumped Sheryl’s monthly checks to $1,215.
VA’s system slow to respond
To this day, the VA maintains it acted correctly in the Cornelius case, granting a modest pension quickly and adding an additional monthly check and funeral subsidy once his widow provided the necessary documentation.
But some observers say the delay in her case shows the system is broken, letting down veterans’ families just when they need help the most.
Ami Neiberger-Miller, spokeswoman for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, said her organization has worked with many families in which a veteran has committed suicide but the VA is reluctant to provide survivor benefits. According to the agency, 22 veterans commit suicide every day, about double the rate of Americans with no military service.
“These families are grieving, and on top of that, they don’t have benefits and have to prove a service connection for the death,” Neiberger-Miller said.
The VA says it is looking for ways to handle burial and pension claims more quickly.
On March 22, responding to a letter from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the agency’s undersecretary for benefits, Allison Hickey, said she “would like to see if some internal VA processes can be adjusted” so that some surviving spouses who haven’t remarried could begin receiving a monthly benefits check immediately when they file a claim.
Sanders said he was pleased with Hickey’s response and would “continue to closely monitor how the changes are implemented.”
But other lawmakers are becoming increasingly impatient with the overall problems of VA benefit delays.
In March, Miller, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs chairman, called for Hickey’s resignation, saying she wasn’t equipped to handle the agency’s problems. Others, including Time magazine political columnist Joe Klein and Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, have said VA Secretary Eric Shinseki should step down.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post co-written with Concerned Veterans for America CEO Pete Hegseth, Hunter cited the VA’s inability to digitize the processing of disability claims as an example of mismanagement. Documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting reveal that after a four-year, $537 billion computerization effort, 97 percent of disability claims remain on paper.
In a statement, the VA said it has no timeline for computerizing claims brought by veterans’ survivors. The system, due for a $155 million infusion in Obama’s 2014 budget, will be able to handle burial benefit claims “eventually,” the agency said.
In the days before Jack Cornelius died, his family was filled with a sense of dread.
Although Jack had never hurt Sheryl, he was so angry and drunk that she began to worry about her physical safety. One night, when her daughter, Sarah Dawn Ray, called, the two women had a premonition that the situation could soon turn violent.
“I told her she should come stay with me in Oklahoma City,” Sarah said. Somehow, Sheryl got Jack to drive her to her daughter’s apartment.
Meanwhile, Sheryl’s two sons, Jim and Ian Ray, continued checking in on Jack. They told her Jack seemed vacant, sitting alone in his chair, rarely interacting with anyone, including Ian’s 2-year-old daughter, his favorite grandchild. He stopped going to work.
On July 8, 2009, the family decided that Jack needed to be hospitalized to get intense psychiatric help. That evening, they traveled to Hinton in Ian’s pickup truck. As Ian waited at the car, smoking a cigarette, Sheryl and Jim entered the house.
It was so quiet, they thought Jack had gone out. Then Jim saw Jack sitting in his favorite chair with a rifle in his hand. In a rush, Jim moved the rifle behind another chair so his mother wouldn’t see it and called for his brother to come take her out of the house.
Ian guided Sheryl across the street to the police station. At that moment, she said, she knew Jack was dead.
Nearly four years after Jack’s suicide, his passing still dominates Sheryl’s life. She’s moved in with her son Jim, who works for an oil and gas company. Her small bedroom is filled with items that commemorate Jack’s life and military service.
His burial flag sits folded neatly on the floor next to her bed. A framed copy of the letter Jack wrote describing the horrors of Vietnam is on the wall, alongside a picture of Jack at 18, in uniform, smoking a cigarette, with a helmet that looks too big for his head.
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.