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"Defend Freedom" bus tour comes to Pensacola Beach

PENSACOLA BEACH - War heroes and widows of fallen service members were among those who came out for a special event on Pensacola Beach Sunday.

The "Defend Freedom" bus tour was in town, bringing attention to the huge backlog of unprocessed disability claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and other issues for our veterans.
   
Retired Lieutenant Colonel Steve Russell, who attended the event, commanded one of the central units in the hunt and capture of Saddam Hussein during the Iraq War.

"There were a lot of guys that lost their lives on the way to that hole," Russell said. He's written a book about the experience, but now he's telling a very different story.

"We've sensed that this nation is coming off the rails," Russell said, "We have wounded veterans coming back from Afghanistan that it takes 14 months just to get their claim acknowledged."

Russell and others are on a nationwide bus tour aimed at bringing attention to the backlog of nearly 500,000 unprocessed benefits claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The event at Pensacola Beach included a brunch with speakers at Flounder's and a concert at Casino Beach. The tour is run by the non-profit, non-partisan group, Concerned Veterans for America.

Darin Selnick, who's on the group's organizing committee, said "Since I left in 2009, the VA's gone downhill." He worked for more than seven years as a special assistant to three secretaries of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Florida has one of the worst backlogs," Selnick said, "The average wait in Florida is 374 days just to get some word on your claim."

Selnick and others gathered signatures for a petition they'll send to the president to bring attention to the issue.

Selnick said, "We want an outside agency to come in, investigate this and get the real solutions from outside experts so we can institute long term reform."

"We have to change this culture," said Russell, "Our veterans deserve absolutely the first rate treatment in this country and we're tired of seeing our wounded warriors and those in greatest need getting the shaft."

-Joe Douglass