PITTSFIELD -- The death of a Marine Corps veteran who struggled to have his disability claim processed through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs could provide "a wake-up call" nationally, according to Rosanne Frieri, the city's director of Veterans Services.

Citing the national backlog of some 850,000 pending claims for medical services -- including some she has helped local veterans to submit -- Frieri said she doubts much will change "until we fix this broken system."

The issue was thrust into the public consciousness over the weekend by the apparent suicide of Edward Passetto, 28, of Pittsfield, who as a Marine served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is credited with risking his life to save two people in a helicopter crash. Shortly before his death, Passetto described in an open letter to President Obama his attempts for more than two years to have his disability claim for post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems allowed by the VA.

He also reached out to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, who said on Tuesday that he had tried to get the VA to expedite Passetto's claim.

"Maybe this will be a wake-up call," Frieri said. "It's a shame it had to take the sacrifice of such a young life -- a hero -- to make people really pay attention."

Frieri, the veterans service director here for six years, said VA claim-processing delays have become more common and the times longer, despite attempts to streamline and simplify the paperwork required for veterans to receive benefits.

"I am broken-hearted when I think of that young man," she said. "I just wish he had come through my door and I could have helped."

In Holyoke on Monday, a roundtable discussion on the backlog issue was organized by Neal, D-Springfield, at the Soldiers Home. Attending were veterans service officers from several communities and state and federal veteran service officials.

Mayor Richard Alcombright of North Adams said he attended and heard "a significant level of frustration" expressed by veterans and service officers.

"The message I heard was that [the VA] can do a lot better," Alcombright said, adding that extensive and slow-moving paperwork requirements and a toll-free telephone number that can require a long wait to contact a VA representative are major issues.

"Just that Representative Neal brought this together was very worthwhile," he said.

Neal said Tuesday, "I join the friends and loved ones of Sgt. Edward Passetto in expressing my sorrow on his untimely passing. A native of the Berkshires, he served our country in Iraq and Afghanistan with honor and distinction. Sgt. Passetto recently contacted my office in Pittsfield looking for help with his disability claim. Like any veteran in need of assistance, I sent a letter on his behalf to the Department of Veterans Affairs requesting a timely determination of his case. Unfortunately, the VA did not respond quickly enough for this dedicated Marine."

Neal added, "One in five soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from some form of PTSD. And many of them have difficulty accessing their veterans benefits. I find that simply unacceptable. That is why I organized a meeting at the Holyoke Soldiers Home yesterday [Monday] with local, state and federal veterans agents to discuss how we can make the VA system more effective ... I intend to continue working directly with veterans services officers until the system is improved."

Alcombright said that Brad Meyers, the New England regional VA director, attended the session and "offered no excuses, only reasons." He [Meyers] "took his lumps," Alcombright said, and then explained the agency's efforts to eliminate the backlog by its announced deadline of 2015.

Staffing was cited as a factor slowing the claims process in New England, and the hiring of new employees reportedly is underway.

Frieri said her office sees people with PTSD, complications from Agent Orange exposure and numerous other medical problems or conditions. Claims are supposed to be processed within 125 days, she said, but often take longer.

Nationally, there are about 600,000 claims pending longer than 125 days, according to VA figures.

Even when a new "easy form" is used, veterans sometimes come back with a request for more information, she said.

Not all vets work with veterans service officers, Frieri said, but that could be an advantage in dealing with the federal bureaucracy. She usually acquires power of attorney to be able to ask questions on behalf of the veteran about the status of his or her claim. Veterans can reach her office at (413) 499-9433.

To reach Jim Therrien:
jtherrien@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_therrien