FOR HUNDREDS of injured soldiers at Fort Drum in Watertown, N.Y., the process of getting discharged from the military is a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Being reunited with loved ones lies just around the corner, but then there’s the challenge of readjusting to civilian life while bearing the scars–physical and emotional–of war.
Since March of last year, soldiers at Fort Drum have faced an additional burden–trying to navigate the maze of military red tape surrounding disability benefits, without the help of officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
A disability rating of 30 percent or more entitles a wounded soldier to annual payments and care after being discharged. But last year, Army officials told VA employees to stop helping injured soldiers fill out paperwork that determines their all-important disability rating, according to a story broken by Ari Shapiro of National Public Radio (NPR) in late January.
Army Surgeon General Eric Schoomaker initially denounced the NPR report as a falsehood and said that no Army official had told the VA to end its practice of advising soldiers on their paperwork. A few days later, he issued an apology for the Army saying precisely that–and said that the VA can continue to assist soldiers.
The uproar around the situation at Fort Drum fits into a wider pattern of bureaucratic neglect and military penny-pinching at the expense of injured soldiers.
Early last year, media exposés revealed that wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Hospital–the military’s flagship medical facility–were living in vermin-infested quarters and wrestling with impenetrable red tape while they tried to recover from life-altering battle injuries.
Many soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions have to fight to get their conditions recognized by the military. They are returning home to grapple with unemployment, substance abuse and even suicide.
The military even tried to court-martial GIs who seek but fail to receive proper treatment for their mental health conditions–and decide that they have no option but to go absent without leave in order to preserve their own sanity.
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SHAPIRO’S REPORT featured a soldier–whose voice was electronically altered to preserve his anonymity–saying that a VA official who briefed a room full of soldiers at Fort Drum about their disability benefits said, “We cannot help you review the narrative summaries of your medical problems.”
This new directive to VA officials came on the heels of a visit to Fort Drum by an Army “Tiger Team”–the term the Army uses for an ad-hoc group of investigators–sent to determine why soldiers at Fort Drum were receiving higher disability ratings than those from other bases.
The Army’s instruction to the VA–and the VA’s decision to abide by it even though the Army has no policy barring individuals or groups from helping soldiers review or revise their narrative summaries during the 10-day window allowed for reviewing the paperwork–shocked the soldier who spoke to Shapiro.
“If the VA is doing an outstanding job in this one particular area, why not make that army-wide and military-wide, so everybody benefits from that, instead of restraining one group that is excelling to lower the standard back to where the rest of the military is?” the soldier said.
“To be tossed aside like a worn-out pair of boots is pretty disheartening. I always believed that the Army would take care of me if I did the best that I could, and I’ve done that. It’s kind of a slap in the face to find out otherwise after all this time.”
But the Army’s motivation is as plain as it is callous–if injured soldiers get higher disability ratings, the military has to devote more of its budget to disability payments.
A soldier’s narrative summary of his or her medical issues is crucial, according to Tod Ensign, director of the GI advocacy group Citizen Soldier, which founded the Different Drummer Café, a GI coffeehouse near Fort Drum.
“Certain keywords qualify or disqualify soldiers to receive certain benefit levels,” Ensign said in an interview. “You only get what’s called severance pay from the Army based on amount of time served. So if you are injured and rated at 29 percent, that means about $3,000 in severance pay and no long-term disability pay.”
Ensign is helping several soldiers at Fort Drum file a request for a service-wide Court of Inquiry under Article 135 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice–the same regulation used by GIs during the Vietnam War to request a hearing into the My Lai massacre.
“Here, where you have thousands of injured soldiers, and you’ve got this policy interfering with their right to get help from the VA, there needs to be an Army-wide investigation because the command should not be allowed to investigate itself,” Ensign said. “You don’t have to be an active-duty soldier to sign such an article. So former members of the military can also sign on to a request for an Article 135 hearing.”
Ensign believes such a hearing is critical to determining “how widespread this problem is. How many people have been denied disability ratings that they would have otherwise been rewarded?”
The experience of Adrienne Kinne, who served in the Army from 1994 to 2004 and is now northeast regional coordinator of Iraq Veterans Against the War, illustrates why a broader inquiry is urgently needed.
“When I left active duty for the first time in 1998, it was standard operating procedure that when I was out-processing, somebody from the VA sat down with me one-on-one and went through my entire medical history,” said Kinne, who is also a VA employee, but doesn’t speak on the VA’s behalf.
“He had my medical files and went through them page for page, and helped me determine what I was able to file for and what I couldn’t. This happened with every soldier discharged from Fort Gordon, where I was stationed at that time.”
A few years later, Kinne says, things were very different.
“When I was activated after 9/11, I was stationed again at Fort Gordon, but standard operating procedure had changed because there were so many people being out-processed, all at the same time,” she said.
“I think the problem comes when you mobilize entire units and then demobilize entire units, and you have hundreds or thousands of soldiers being out-processed at the same time. As a result, they just don’t have the personnel necessary to work with soldiers one-on-one.
“And because so many soldiers are being wounded and deeply affected because of these wars, the VA budget has never been up to par. They have never increased it. They never planned for caring for soldiers after the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. I think as a result, they are basically trying to deny soldiers their full benefits as a means to make money stretch further.”
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ONE REASON why Schoomaker retracted his criticism of the NPR report is a four-page document written by one of the VA officials at Fort Drum who attended the March meeting with the Army Tiger Team.
NPR’s Shapiro presented Schoomaker with the internal memo, which clearly states that an Army colonel told the VA staff at the meeting that VA support for soldiers filling out their paperwork is “a conflict of interest,” though the nature of the “conflict” is not spelled out.
The memo also notes that one purpose of the Tiger Team visit was to “ensure that there are no other ‘Walter Reed’ situations at other Army installations.” The Army had good reason to be concerned.
The memo quotes Rosie Taylor–who at the time was Fort Drum’s Disability Program manager and has since retired–saying she witnessed incidents of injured soldiers at Fort Drum “having to drag themselves up and down the hallways, as the barracks were not handicapped or wheelchair accessible.”
Taylor also told the story of a “soldier found in the barracks who had been bedridden for three days without a change of clothing or meals.” And she described the general disrepair of the medical-hold barracks, including “non-functional furnaces, shared shower facilities, poor insulation, etc.”
In an interview with NPR, Taylor said that before the scandal documenting the harrowing conditions at Walter Reed, no one took any interest in her repeated requests for improving conditions for wounded soldiers at Fort Drum.
“Every time I walked into a meeting before, it was like, ‘Oh my God, there goes $70,000,’” Taylor told NPR. “And after Walter Reed hit the fan, it was like I was getting phone calls, ‘Rosie, we’re doing over a building, and we need your advice on access.’”
The signature injury of the U.S. war on Iraq is traumatic brain injury (TBI)–typically the result of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) going off.
Diagnosing TBI presents many challenges, and such injuries can also delay the onset or mask the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. What’s more, the military often seeks to disqualify soldiers suffering from PTSD from receiving service-connected disability benefits–by attributing their symptoms to supposedly pre-existing “personality disorders.”
In the opinion of many advocates for soldiers suffering these conditions, the military and the VA have a long way to go to address their injuries.
“The VA has not implemented ways to properly screen for and treat TBI,” according to Kinne. “The military is not screening for it, and they are sending people back out again and again who have been exposed to concussive forces. This makes it more likely for them to miss cues in the field that means they could be exposed to additional IED blasts.”
Given the complexities of such issues, it should be obvious that soldiers urgently need help navigating the military bureaucracy that stands between them and the benefits they deserve.
The Army has been embarrassed by the media disclosures about the hundreds of Fort Drum soldiers who have had to wade through the system on their own since last March. “If anyone out there feels that they didn’t get the best advice, they need to come forward and let us know about that,” Schoomaker told reporters–implying that there may be help for soldiers who already received a disability rating that may be too low.
But judging from the years it took to force the military to properly compensate veterans of the Vietnam era, as well as the military’s ongoing disregard for wounded soldiers, it will require sustained organizing to hold Schoomaker to his word–for the wounded at Fort Drum and at bases across the country.