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Injured Soldiers Returning from Iraq Struggle for Medical Benefits, Financial Survival

Injured Soldiers Returning from Iraq Struggle for Medical Benefits, Financial Survival
source : http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/IraqCoverage/story?id=163109&page=1

Injured Soldiers Returning from Iraq Struggle for Medical Benefits, Financial Survival

Tyson Johnson III of Mobile, Ala., lost a kidney in a mortar attack last year in Iraq. (The Associated Press)


Oct. 14, 2004 -- Following inquiries by ABC News, the Pentagon has dropped plans to force a severely wounded U.S. soldier to repay his enlistment bonus after injuries had forced him out of the service.

Army Spc. Tyson Johnson III of Mobile, Ala., who lost a kidney in a mortar attack last year in Iraq, was still recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center when he received notice from the Pentagon's own collection agency that he owed more than $2,700 because he could not fulfill his full 36-month tour of duty.

Johnson said the Pentagon listed the bonus on his credit report as an unpaid government loan, making it impossible for him to rent an apartment or obtain credit cards.

"Oh man, I felt betrayed," Johnson said. "I felt, like, oh, my heart dropped."

Pentagon officials said they were unaware of the case until it was brought to their attention by ABC News. "Some faceless bureaucrat" was responsible for Johnson's predicament, said Gen. Franklin "Buster" Hagenbeck, a three-star general and the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel.

"It's absolutely unacceptable. It's intolerable," said Hagenbeck. "I mean, I'm incredulous when I hear those kinds of things. I just can't believe that we allow that to happen. And we're not going to let it happen."

The Department of Defense and the Army intervened to have the collection action against Johnson stopped, said Hagenbeck.

"I was told today he's not going to have a nickel taken from him," he said. "And I will tell you that we'll keep a microscope on this one to see the outcome."

Hagenbeck also pledged to look into the cases of the other soldiers ABC News brought to the military's attention, including men who lost limbs and their former livelihoods after serving in Iraq.

"When you're in the military, they take good care of you," said the 23-year-old Johnson. "But now that I'm a vet, and, you know, I'm out of the military — not so good. Not so good."

Johnson had been flying high last September, after being promoted from Army private first class to specialist in a field ceremony in Iraq. Inspired by his father's naval background to join the military after high school, Tyson planned a career in the military and the promotion was just the first step. But only a week after the ceremony took place, a mortar round exploding outside his tent brought him quickly back to Earth.

"It was like warm water running down my arms," he said. "But it was warm blood."

In addition to the lost kidney, shrapnel damaged Johnson's lung and heart, and entered the back of his head. Field medical reports said he was not expected to live more than 72 hours.

With the help of exceptional Army surgeons, Johnson survived. As he recuperated, however, Johnson faced perhaps an even greater obstacle than physical pain or injuries — the military bureaucracy.

Part of the warrior ethos, the soldier's creed of the U.S. Army, is to "never leave a fallen comrade."

"And it doesn't just pertain to the battlefield," Hagenbeck said. "It means, when we get them home they're a part of the Army family forever."

But Johnson now lives in his car. It is where he spends most of his days, all of his nights, in constant pain from his injuries and unwilling to burden his family.

Stories like Tyson Johnson's are not unique.

Many of the severely wounded soldiers returning from Iraq face the prospect of poverty and what they describe as official indifference and incompetence.

"Guys I've met, talking to people, they'd be better off financially for their families if they had died as opposed to coming back maimed," said Staff Sgt. Ryan Kelly, who served as a civil affairs specialist for the Army while in Iraq.

On July 14, 2003, the Abilene, Texas, native had been on his way to a meeting about rebuilding schools in Iraq when his unarmored Humvee was blown up. A piece of shrapnel the size of a TV remote took his right leg off, below the knee, almost completely, Kelly said.

Kelly attests to receiving excellent medical care at Ward 57, the amputee section of Walter Reed, but said he quickly realized that the military had no real plan for the injured soldiers. Many had to borrow money or depend on charities just to have relatives visit at Walter Reed, Kelly said.

"It's not what I expected to see when I got here," he said. "These guys having to, you know, basically panhandle for money to afford things."

Perhaps as a sign of the grim outlook facing many of these wounded soldiers, Staff Sgt. Peter Damon, a National Guardsman from Brockton, Mass., said he is grateful for being a double amputee.

"Well, in a way, I'm kind of lucky losing both arms because I've been told I'll probably get 100 percent disability," he said.

Damon, a mechanic and electrician, lost both arms in an explosion as he was repairing a helicopter in Iraq. He initially woke up in the hospital worried and anxious to learn that both forms of livelihood were taken away from him.

"Now what am I doing to do?" Damon said, faced with the prospect of supporting his wife, Jennifer, and two children. "I can't do either, none of those, with no hands."

The military fails to provide a lump sum payment for such catastrophic injuries. And Damon still has not heard from the military about what they plan to give in terms of monthly disability payments.

The last time Damon asked about the payments, he was told by the military that his paperwork had been lost.

"And then when I went to go back to inquire about it again, just to ask a question, I just wanted to see if they had found my paperwork, I was told I had to make an appointment and to come back five days later," he said.

A thick book of federal regulations specifies the disability rate based on how many limbs were amputated and precisely where.

The percentage rates were set during World War II.

Jennifer Damon said the shock of her husband returning with no arms has been replaced by the fear of destitution, as well as a frustration over her husband's final discharge. Like his disability benefits, Peter's release is being held up by the lost paperwork and unanswered phone calls.

"It's hard to understand," she said. "I mean, I need him more than they need him right now. It's been a long time. You've had him for a long time. I want him back."

Staff Sgt. Larry Gill, a National Guardsman from Semmes, Ala., wonders whether his 20 dutiful years of military service have been adequately rewarded.

Last October, Gill injured his left leg when on patrol during a protest outside a mosque in Baghdad. A protester threw a hand grenade which left Gill, a former policeman, with leg intact, though useless. He received a Purple Heart from the military, but no program, plan or proposal of how to make a living in civilian life.

"It's not fair, and I'm not complaining," Gill said. "I'm not whining about it. You know, I just, I just don't think people really understand what we're being faced with.

Gill expects he will have to sell his home, the dream house he and his wife, Leah, designed and built, where they raised their children.

"I've never questioned my orders," he said. "I've slept with rats and stood in the rain and wondered why I was standing in the rain, and, you know, for my children to have to do without based on a lack of income from me, it's frustrating."

Leah Gill agreed. "I just don't feel we should have to uproot because of an injury that he received while he was serving the country," she said. "It shouldn't come down to that."

Gill and the others in Ward 57 have had their pictures taken frequently with visiting politicians.

"Where are the politicians? Where are the generals?" he asked. "Where are the people that are supposed to take care of me?"

Help and care will be forthcoming, promised Hagenbeck.

"There in fact was a plan," he said. "But again, it was not integrated in a seamless fashion that it needed to be. And that was not even, really, to be honest with you, recognized probably until sometime about a year ago. And these soldiers actually brought it to our attention about the transition problems."

The military would do a better job of taking care of their own, Hagenbeck said, though the system in place was often unwieldy, outdated and inadequate.

"Oh, there absolutely has been problems in the past," Hagenbeck said. "And they're in — even with some of our soldiers today. Some missteps have been made. And they have not been taken care of the way they should have been taken care of."

To help these neglected soldiers, Hagenbeck said, the military created an advocacy program this past April called Disabled Soldier Support System, or DS3. The network is set up to fight for a soldier's benefits and entitlements, ease transition to civilian life, and deal with any other problems facing a disabled soldier, according to Hagenbeck.

But still there are soldiers like Johnson who fall through the cracks.

His mother, Willie Jean Johnson, worries her son may hurt himself.

"He's not going to say anything bad about the Army," she said. "I have never heard him say anything bad about it. But you can see the hurt in his eyes. You can see the hurt from his heart in his eyes."

Johnson said he usually keeps to himself, preferring to protect his son from seeing him in his current state. "I'd rather be to myself than to flare at somebody else and, you know, and hurt someone that I know I really love," he said.

One year after nearly being killed in combat, the Pentagon has yet to send Johnson his Purple Heart medal.

The Pentagon collection notices, however, arrive without fail.

As to Kelly's discovery that he and his wounded comrades had to beg and borrow to pay for their loved ones to visit while they recuperate, Hagenbeck said a new policy went into effect this weekend to alleviate part of the problem.

"There was no system in place to support them in their needs. And I'll be honest with you, until it came to our attention, to people that were paying attention, and then those that wanted to help, that obstacle was there," Hagenbeck said.

Incredibly, these soldiers remain dedicated to the military despite all they have endured.

"Even though the way I'm being treated, you know, as a vet, I'd still go back in," Johnson said. "I would."

"I love being a soldier," Kelly said. "I don't regret what happened. If I had to go back to Iraq knowing that there was that chance of losing my leg, I'd do it. Because that's what the nation asked me to do."

Jessica Wang contributed to this report.
Casualties today and yesterday -- same ol', same ol' 18.Oct.2004 15:41

Carolyn Mabry

My little brother was crying. He was hiding behind Mom's leg and she was holding the baby as we made our way down that long dreary hallway. Mom held his hand and he held mine and our tight little unit weaved in and out of wheelchairs, down the avocado cement block corridor. I was oldest so I tried to be brave.
The long bleak hallway was packed with men, mostly young men. The walls, especially, were lined with them--some sitting in wheelchairs, others lying on gurneys. They were just parked along this hallway for no reason in particular that I could tell. All of them--alone. Not a single one had a visitor. Our little troop were the only "un-enlisted personnel" that I remember seeing at all there.

It was 1970 and we were visiting my father at Bethesda Naval Hospital. I visited him there two times before he died.

I have never forgotten walking down those halls, though I didn't think of it much until here recently.

There was this heavy, palpable weight of human suffering that hung in the air so thick it was hard to breathe. You almost could not pull it through your nostrils. Anger. Despair. Grief. Wretchedness hung in the air. Suffering and sacrifice boiled in my lungs.

I've been remembering that walk, that hall, a lot recently. For some reason I can't get it out of my mind. All those boys, some of them their eyes so empty, and others so full of rage and pain. Many of them hooked up to tubes and wires, looking so much older than they probably were. They visit me in my dreams lately. I'm having trouble sleeping.

I remember one boy in particular. He was in a wheelchair and his whole bottom half was gone—not just his legs, everything. I don't know how he was even sitting up. I remember wondering how he went to the bathroom when my mom suddenly gave my shoulder a ferocious shake and hissed, "Don't stare!"

I dropped my eyes. I wanted to hide behind my own eyelids. I didn't want to see him seeing me see him. I didn't want to be seen either. I didn't want my whole complete eight-year-old self to be seen by these boy/men who were missing pieces. It felt like taunting and made me feel guilty.

I remember that resentment roiled off of some of them. It didn't feel directed at me but it still scared me. It felt like barely contained fury. It felt dangerous.

And I remember one poor young man, one poor, sweet Boy, (and this is the man that I still cry about. This is the instant that is seared into my psyche, singeing me with almost crystal clarity to this day) who tried to be nice to me... who tried to speak to me... who told me I was a "pretty little girl". But I could not look at him or speak back. His face was so messed up. I am still ashamed of that. I wish I'd done different for that poor man.

Lately I've been hearing about Americans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans who've been gravely injured, and I think of those boys, the ones filed in that hallway like broken pencils stuffed in a drawer.

I am hearing stories about this new batch of wounded, left waiting for weeks and even months at places like the Fort Stewart military base in Georgia, waiting untreated for proper medical help. They've received little more than basic triage.

I hear the walls at Fort Stewart are white instead of avocado.

I hear injured Reservists and National Guard soldiers are receiving the worst treatment. At Fort Stewart, they wait for months, some with horrific injuries, in hot concrete barracks with no air-conditioning or running water.

The press barely mentions these casualties. No one discusses the severity of these wounds.

Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, complained in September 2003 that he was unable to find out how many US soldiers had been wounded in Iraq because the administration refused to release this information. Last December, Congressman Gene Taylor (D. Mississippi) complained that the Pentagon deliberately undercounted combat casualties. He cited the case of five members of the Mississippi National Guard who had been wounded in a booby-trap bomb explosion. Incredibly, their injuries were listed by the military as "non combat." The truth emerged only because Taylor spoke face to face with the most seriously injured of the five at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and then sent a memo to other members of Congress to ask "if anyone has had a similar incident."

The media only reports on those killed in action. Few Americans have any idea of the shockingly large number of US soldiers wounded in Iraq. We now know that the actual estimates of US soldiers, sailors and Marines medically evacuated from Iraq by the end of 2003 because of battlefield wounds, illness or other battlefield reasons is between 11,000 and 22,000.

That was at the end of 2003.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (Rep.-Nebraska), a Vietnam veteran and former deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration, petitioned Donald Rumsfeld for the "total number of American battlefield casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq". He asked these questions: "What is the official Pentagon definition of "wounded in action"? "What is the procedure for releasing this information in a timely way to the public?" and "What is the criteria for awarding a Purple Heart?" [Purple Hearts are awarded to those wounded in combat or to the next of kin of those killed or who died later from wounds received in action.] Hagel was seeking an accurate count of Purple Hearts and the dates they were awarded. The number is significant because it is an official record of the total number of battlefield casualties. After six weeks, Hagel received this reply, "The Department of Defense does not have the requested information."

2004 has seen escalating violence and death. Since May, the number of soldiers killed in action has increased every month over the month before. How many soldiers are injured for every one who dies? How many file drawers do we have where we can hide these poor mangled bodies and minds?

And what about the ones for whom we don't think we need drawers? The ones like John Allen Muhammad, the sniper killer from Washington, DC? Muhammad was a special forces soldier in the first Iraq war. By all accounts he was a loving husband and father and a community leader--before he went to Iraq. Muhammad came back from Iraq full of anger and violence. He was a different man. He was a killer.

Unfortunately the issue of emotional or psychological disorders has also received almost no public attention, though it is very much on the minds of the medical community. One publication, created for clinics that will be treating returning Iraq war veterans, states, "Post-traumatic stress disorder is one of many different ways a veteran can manifest chronic post-war adjustment difficulties. Veterans are also at risk for depression, substance abuse, aggressive behavior problems, and the spectrum of severe mental illnesses precipitated by the stress of war."

Depression. Aggression. That was what I was feeling when I walked into Bethesda Naval Hospital back in 1970. Plus a heaping helping of fear and guilt and shame—not at what they'd been forced to do in times of war (at least not all of it) but at their feeling that they had "let their country Army down."


No. Their country let them down.

And their country is letting them down all over again.