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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Fewer Vets Granted Permanent Disability Today Than in 2001, Based on Percentages

Navy Times adds to the already overwhelming Washington Post coverage unmasking the odyssey returning troops face as they attempt to heal from war's physical and/or psychological wounds:

[Pvt. Robert] Van Antwerp is one of thousands of wounded troops rushed from the war zone for health care and then stranded in administrative limbo. They are at the mercy of a medical evaluation system that’s agonizingly slow, grossly understaffed and saddled with a growing backlog of cases. The wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are stuck in holding companies awaiting hearings and decisions on whether they will continue their military service or be discharged, and if so, at what level of benefits — if any.

In 2001, 10 percent of soldiers going through the medical retirement process received permanent disability benefits. In 2005, with two wars raging, that percentage dropped to 3 percent, according to the Government Accountability Office. Reservists dropped from 16 percent to 5 percent.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

Soldiers go to VA to try for more benefits, but the department had a staggering 400,000-case backup on new claims in fiscal 2006, according to VA. For that reason, Van Antwerp faces another wait at VA. Cases there have an average of a one-year wait. ... [M]any of the soldiers leaving Walter Reed face post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies have shown that if soldiers receive treatment within a year, they fare much better. ...

Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, the number of soldiers wading through the paperwork, physicals and appointments has doubled at Walter Reed. According to a Defense Department directive, it should take a total of 120 days from start to finish, but the average stay for Walter Reed soldiers is 270 days. The soldiers navigate a complicated system with the help of counselors with little more experience — or rank — than they have, and who lack training, according to a March 2006 Government Accountability Office report.

On March 2, 2006, Col. Robert Norton, deputy director, Government Relations, for the Military Officers Association of America, told the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs that since October 2003, medical evaluation boards have averaged 67 days and physical evaluation boards have taken between 87 and 280 days. “Taken together, the convalescence, [medical evaluation board] and [physical evaluation board] processes appear to average between nine and 15½ months for Army soldiers,” he said.

The reason?

Part of the problem is that the system is understaffed.

On Feb. 17, 2005, Lt. Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck, former deputy chief of staff for personnel, told the House Committee on Government Reform that the Army did not have nearly the resources it had during the Vietnam War. He said the Army processed 15,000 cases in 2004 with three physical evaluation board systems and a total of 70 employees. “The last time we had that many cases was in 1972, when [we] processed 19,000 cases,” he said. “At that time, there were six [physical evaluation boards] across five states and the District with a total of 260 employees.”

Buchanan said that number has grown to 95 employees since the hearing, though he is only authorized 61.

The next grafs are especially important to those of us advocating that fairness, compassion and full assistance be given returning veterans who are working to get their lives back on track:

On Christmas Day, six soldiers spent their time at Walter Reed picking up trash, mopping floors and emptying garbage. “I was planning to go home for the holidays,” said Spc. Ruben Villalpando, who dropped from sergeant rank when he came up hot for marijuana on a urinalysis while at Walter Reed. “There’s a 100 percent urinalysis policy for med hold.” In other words, every soldier in the medical hold company is tested for drugs.

The other five soldiers also came up hot, he said. Not only did Villalpando lose his holiday, the reduction in rank means that if he does receive a disability payment, it will be lower than it would have been a month before.

Ray Parrish, director of the military counseling service for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, helps soldiers through the medical and physical evaluation boards and has worked as a counselor since his days as a soldier. The long wait can be a problem, he said, especially for soldiers suffering from PTSD. Those soldiers have a tendency to self-medicate, as well as act out in anger. “During that six- to eight-month wait, you’re just sitting around,” Parrish said. “It’s quite literally an opportunity to get in trouble.”

And soldiers discharged with other-than-honorable stamped on their DD214s can’t get benefits from VA. Randy Reese, national service director for Disabled American Veterans, also works with soldiers going through the process. He said he understands why they take the first rating they get: “They’re in the hospital for a long time away from their friends,” he said. “A lot of people will do whatever they have to do to get back home, and they’re missing out on a whole world of retirement benefits that could be available to them.”

Villalpando arrived at Walter Reed after forcing a fistful of antidepressants down his throat. While Villalpando was in Iraq in May 2005, his cousin, Marcos Omar Nolasco, was electrocuted in a faulty shower in Baghdad. “He came back from a mission, and he took a shower, and he got electrocuted,” Villalpando said, surrounded by his own artwork and a Morrissey poster at the barracks across the street from Walter Reed. “It did a good number on me. I was so close to him. I spent the remainder of my tour on antidepressants.”

The 7th Field Artillery, 1st Infantry Division, soldier said he attempted suicide to try to get help after falling into a depression. Now his end term of service date has passed — he was to get out in August — and still he sits at Walter Reed. In his case, there have been clerical errors, such as a mistyped Social Security number that meant his paperwork had to be processed again, he said. “This place gets so depressing,” he said. “I’m frustrated. I’m tired. I’m angry. I want to go home.”

Hurdles returning troops face as they make their way through medical claims processing:

* A physician evaluates the soldier’s injury or disease.

* The doctor’s report initiates the medical evaluation board process. At least two doctors informally decide whether that soldier can return to duty. If so, he goes back to work — process over. That’s all supposed to happen within 30 days of the first diagnosis, according to Army regulations.

* If not, the medical evaluation board doctors forward their evaluation of the solder deemed not fit to return to duty to the physical evaluation board. The soldier selects a counselor, either from the Army or a civilian provided by the Disabled American Veterans. Without the soldier present, the physical evaluation board conducts an informal assessment. Three voting members — a combat arms colonel, a personnel management officer and a physician — look at the evidence and decide whether the soldier is fit for duty. If so, the soldier is returned. If not, the board assigns that soldier a disability rating, based on injury- or disease-specific factors.

* If the disability rating is at least 30 percent, the soldier gets medical benefits for life as well as the same percentage of base pay. If it is lower, the soldier receives a one-time severance payment, calculated by multiplying his number of years in service by his monthly pay and then doubling the total.

* The soldier then talks with his counselor about whether he should accept the recommendations or request a formal hearing. The government does not argue its case against the soldier — the board is there to hear the evidence from the soldier. If the soldier is still not satisfied, he can appeal to the Physical Disability Agency — the Defense Department’s oversight agency.

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