By Chris Adams

As American soldiers stream home from Iraq and Afghanistan, what was a war on the battlefield has become a war for benefits. And the agency responsible for handling those benefits is the embattled, overwhelmed, and often-dysfunctional Department of Veterans Affairs.

At McClatchy Newspapers (as well as Knight Ridder, acquired in 2006),  we’ve been tracking the VA and its efforts to provide benefits to America’s former soldiers for about eight years. We sometimes cover it as a beat but more often we look to the VA as a vast data warehouse: a place that tracks millions of veterans and billions of dollars, and one that constantly struggles to do so.

In those billions of dollars are stories of individual veterans – of former soldiers who have waited years to have a disability compensation case resolved, of young Iraq veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder but unable to easily access mental health care, or of elderly widows who could get a VA pension due to their husbands’ service but don’t even know the pension exists.

For reporters,  analyzing any VA data you can get your hands on helps find the stories that best illustrate the big trend emerging from the numbers.

In 2005, for example,  Knight Ridder colleague Alison Young (now a reporter at USA Today) and I wrote a story about the extensive waits veterans experienced because their disability claims were sent back again and again and again for re-hearings. The numbers, based on an analysis of VA appeals data, showed that 13,700 veterans had died the previous decade while their cases were in the appeals process. Berlie Bowman was one of them.

A North Carolina man who had gone to Vietnam in 1967, Bowman developed PTSD over a lifetime that included 30 jobs; his first disability claim, in 1971 for “nerves,” was denied, as was his second, in 1995.

By 2004, after a half dozen different decisions, he finally won his claim. But by then his health was failing from advanced pancreatic cancer. His check for back benefits – the $53,784 the VA should have paid him over the years but hadn’t – was in the process of being cut when Bowman died. No check was ever sent.

Need some shoe leather to go with your data
Stories like those came from a mixture of data analysis and old fashioned shoe-leather reporting. Much of the traditional work – talking with veterans’ groups, reading court dockets, listening to the confused veterans or their widows who call in – is pretty basic: the more calls you make, the greater your chance of hitting pay dirt.

The data analysis was something different. Most of the data I requested from VA had never been used by journalists before; medical researchers regularly make use of VA health system data to analyze which treatments work and which don’t. But giving that information over to a journalist didn’t come easy for the VA. We’ve had our share of FOIA skirmishes with the agency, although it has gotten more open in recent years.

In fact, Knight Ridder in 2004 was forced to sue the VA to turn over many of its data files, as well as paper records on how the VA oversees the nonprofit organizations that assist veterans. We eventually got our information – as well as a hefty bill for the legal fees necessary to win our case.

Over the past several years, I’ve filed a few dozen FOIA requests with the VA. It’s vitally important to get it to the right division – the FOIA officer for the VA health system is different than the FOIA officer for the VA benefits system, for example.

I have rarely had success asking the VA to find information for me – i.e., asking a question that would require they go and essentially research and present information that might not readily be available on one book or one database. But if I know the exact database – the precise name of the database; as well as the name, location, and phone number of the person who maintains that database – I’ve increasingly had luck in getting data requests filled.

The VA health system has one document called the “Corporate Databases Monograph” (2011 version, PDF) lists dozens of databases and their uses inside the VA system. It was from that document that I zeroed in on health-system data to request. It gives you much of detail you need to craft a smart FOIA request.

→ Next section: DATA MINING