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Bob Moon: More than seven years into the war in Afghanistan, reinforcements are on the way. Another 17,000 troops are being sent in — as Commander-in-Chief Obama explains it — to “stabilize a deteriorating situation.”
Already, beyond the cost in lives and money, there are monumental funding issues, caring for the severely wounded from both Iraq and Afghanistan. Not to mention: systemic problems within the military and the Veterans Administration, which can sometimes prevent disabled vets from collecting the benefits they’re owed.
As Marketplace’s Jeff Tyler reports, wounded soldiers are often finding they’ve traded one battlefield for another.
JEFF TYLER: Forty-two-year-old Dell McLeod has trouble with his memory. But he knows precisely how long he was in the military.
DELL MCLEOD: I pulled three years, ten months and three days of regular army.
In 2005, he was badly hurt in Kuwait. The driver of his supply truck didn’t secure the cargo door
and it came crashing down on Dell.
MCLEOD: I was airborne. I fell. And I was like a pretzel when I hit the ground. I was unconscious. I sustained a brain injury. Back injury. Goin’ cripple in my right leg.
While he was recovering at Walter Reed army hospital, his wife Annette spent two years battling the army over Dell’s disability benefits. During lunch at a BBQ restaurant in Columbia, South Carolina, Annette says the army dragged its feet when it came to diagnosing Dell’s brain injury, a delay she believes cost them tens of thousands of dollars.
ANNETTE MCLEOD: Because he did not get a traumatic brain injury diagnosis in 90 days, he did not qualify for the Traumatic Servicemen’s Group Life Insurance — that was up to a $100,000.
Some veterans advocates say the military has been systematically short-changing service members on disability benefits.
Soldiers given a military disability rating below 30 percent get a one-time severance payment instead of life-long medical benefits for the whole family.
Kerry Baker — with the Disabled American Veterans — says the army cherry-picks lesser injuries when applying its disability standards. In military-speak, disabilities are referred to as “unfitting conditions.” That’s any injury that prevents soldiers from performing their duties.
KERRY BAKER: The military may choose the ankle injury as the unfitting condition and give them ten percent. And then may determine that the traumatic brain injury, and the back injury, and the shell fragment wounds are not unfitting. And therefore they don’t get a disability rating for those particular disabilities at all. And we see that a lot.
Why would the military do that?
BAKER: We have been of the opinion that it’s monetarily based. You know, it’s an effort to save money.
GEN. KEITH MEURLIN: Absolutely not.
That’s Major General Keith Meurlin, acting director of the Transition Policy and Care Coordination Office at the Defense Department.
Meurlin: There has never been a reference to cut to money off. It’s, how do we make sure the veterans who have served and been injured are treated fairly and compensated fairly for what they’ve sacrificed.
But Meurlin acknowledges some short-comings with the process.
Meurlin: I think there’s a universal feeling that the old system that we have needs some serious modification and tweaking.
That system requires vets to have one disability evaluation while in the military. Then, once they’re discharged, the evaluation process starts all over again with the Department of Veterans Affairs, the VA.
Despite repeated requests, the VA did not make someone available for an interview. The VA has been criticized for not moving quickly enough to handle the surge in new veterans. The backlog for disability claims is in the hundreds of thousands. The VA has been hiring more staff to help cope with the increased demand. But processing a disability claim remains daunting.
Paul Rieckhoff: The burden of proof is always on that veteran.
Paul Rieckhoff is executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He says appealing a disability claim can take years and many vets just can’t afford to wait that long.
Rieckhoff: When you’re trying to put food on your table and you may be working two jobs and you’re dealing with an injury, veterans often take what they can get now, rather than try to fight the system over time. And often times, they end up getting less of a benefit than they probably deserve.
Once benefits are finally determined, some veterans still have trouble taking advantage of them. Especially in rural America.
Dell and Annette McLeod drive over two hours — each way — from their hometown in rural South Carolina to the nearest VA… in Columbia.
McLeod: Oh, a good week, it’s one day a week. On a week when we can’t shift all the appointments, it’s two to three times a week.
There is some progress to report. The VA and the Department of Defense have partnered on a pilot program that combines the two disability evaluations into one. Major Gen. Meurlin says the new system is twice as fast and generates higher payments for disabled vets. The Pentagon will expand the program to more locations this summer.
In Columbia, S.C., I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.
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