Disabled US Troops Shafted
- Few injured, ill troops get disability pay they requested
WASHINGTON - The military's system for compensating soldiers who
become sick, injured or wounded can be as unforgiving as the
battlefield: Fewer than one in 10 applicants receives the long-term
disability payments they request.
Nearly one-third of injured National Guard and Reserve veterans
returning from the Iraqi and Afghan wars are being forced to wait
more than four months to learn if they will even be compensated. That
is a long time for soldiers who might not have other sources of
The Army knows that troops are unhappy. But military officials say
soldiers do not understand that their disability system measures
fitness for duty, not the degree of one's sacrifice.
Most soldiers applying for disability pay - 56 percent in the Army's
case - are leaving the military with a one-time, lump sum payment
that some say is inadequate.
Lavoda Anderson, of Ninety Six, S.C., said she had a life-altering
injury to her back while under fire in Iraq last year. In constant
pain, she was jolted anew when the Army calculated her compensation
for medical retirement at $13,400.
"I feel I was treated very unfairly," said Anderson, who did not
return to her prewar job as a dialysis technician and is raising her
4-year-old daughter. "I didn't get adequate care. I feel like I'm
useless most of the time."
The military's disability system is like workers' compensation and
long-term disability in the private sector. It pays people when they
have illnesses and injuries that are job-related.
The military, however, looks at a much narrower set of circumstances
than insurers or the Department of Veterans Affairs. It only
evaluates ailments that make a soldier unfit for duty in his or her
specialty. For example, can an infantryman still run?
The more generous VA compensation system considers all service-
connected medical conditions.
Soldiers who receive disability compensation from the military also
can apply to the VA for disability pay. The military compensation is
needed, however, to tide a soldier over while waiting for the VA. The
department recently was averaging 171 days to make initial disability
When the VA's disability compensation kicks in, it usually replaces
military pay. Recipients cannot benefit from both systems at the same
In the military system, the Army says, many soldiers misunderstand
that pain by itself won't win them compensation.
"You can't be retired on pain claims alone," said Dennis Brower,
legal adviser to the Army Disability Agency. "Pain is unmeasurable.
The Army does not keep statistics on the dollar amounts of disability
payouts because they are based on a formula that includes a
percentage assigned to each soldier's disability. But it does keep
records on how many soldiers applying for long-term disability
The majority, 56.1 percent, were given a one-time lump sum payment in
2003. Seventeen percent received nothing at all because they either
were declared fit for duty or determined to suffer injuries unrelated
to their service or due to negligence.
Another 17.1 percent received temporary disability payments that can
be reviewed within five years. And just 9.8 percent won long-term
disability pay that lasts for life.
Jesus Oliveras, a chief warrant officer in an Augusta, Ga., reserve
unit, was among those ordered back to duty without compensation.
Oliveras said doctors wrote on his records that he had a hearing
loss. He contends they gave little recognition to his real problems:
debilitating back and shoulder injuries. Despite those injuries, the
maintenance technician volunteered for service in Iraq.
"At times I felt lousy, as a second-class citizen, especially coming
from a war zone," Oliveras said. "They sent us to fight an enemy and
when we returned, we had to fight another enemy - us."
Oliveras said he accepted the fit-for-duty ruling because he is
eligible for regular military retirement in three years.
Brower, the lawyer for the Army disability agency, said, "You can't
give higher disability ratings to soldiers who you feel emotionally
deserve it. It would be nice to give every soldier 100 percent
(disability), but as a taxpayer, you might not like that."
Soldiers, particularly National Guard and Reserve members, also
complain about long delays in medical diagnosis and treatment before
they can receive a determination of disability.
Col. Michael Deaton of the Army surgeon general's office said that as
of late June, 32 percent of the activated Guard and Reserve members
were in a medical holdover status more than 120 days. That compares
with 41 percent in November.
A program that allows soldiers to be treated near where they live has
helped to reduce waiting times for medical care, he said.
Spc. John Ramsey, a deputy sheriff in Orange County, Fla., had
medical bills in the thousands of dollars and was dogged by
creditors. Meanwhile, the state and federal governments fought over
responsibility for his shoulder injuries suffered in Iraq.
"My wife and I and two kids were put through hell because of this,"
Sgt. John Beard of Jacksonville, Fla., who returned from Iraq with
shrapnel wounds in his back, legs and face, said he painfully waited
in long lines for processing. On one occasion, confronting an
irritable soldier handling pay records, Beard said, "I snatched my
orders out of his hands and left."
Staff Sgt. Dwayne Fitzpatrick of Orlando, Fla., won his appeal of an
initial offer of a one-time, $23,000 severance payment. He qualified
instead for a disability payment of $1,300 a month.
"They dangle some money in your face, so many soldiers will take it
and run," he said. "They low-ball everybody. I'm looking at the long
ON THE NET
Army Disability Agency
Army Medical Command http://www.armymedicine.army.mil/default2.htm.
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