Monday, June 16, 2008

This is how they support our troops

Soldiers risk ruin while awaiting benefit checks

2008-06-16 14:07:45
By MICHELLE ROBERTS Associated Press Writer

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — His lifelong dream of becoming a soldier had, in the end, come to this for Isaac Stevens: 28, penniless, in a wheelchair, fending off the sexual advances of another man in a homeless shelter.

Stevens' descent from Army private first-class, 3rd Infantry Division, 11 Bravo Company, began in 2005 — not in battle, since he was never sent off to Iraq or Afghanistan, but with a headfirst fall over a wall on the obstacle course at Fort Benning, Ga. He suffered a head injury and spinal damage.

The injury alone didn't put him in a homeless shelter. Instead, it was military bureaucracy — specifically, the way injured soldiers are discharged on just a fraction of their salary and then forced to wait six to nine months, and sometimes even more than a year, before their full disability payments begin to flow.

"When I got out, I hate to say it, but man, that was it. Everybody just kind of washed their hands of me, and it was like, `OK, you're on your own,'" said Stevens, who was discharged in November and was in a shelter by February. He has since moved into a temporary San Antonio apartment with help from Operation Homefront, a nonprofit organization.

Nearly 20,000 disabled soldiers were discharged in the past two fiscal years, and lawmakers, veterans' advocates and others say thousands could be facing financial ruin while they wait for their claims to be processed and their benefits to come through.

"The anecdotal evidence is depressing," said Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., who heads a subcommittee on veterans disability benefits. "These veterans are getting medical care, but their family is going through this huge readjustment at the same time they're dealing with financial difficulties."

Most permanently disabled veterans qualify for payments from Social Security and the military or Veterans Affairs. Those sums can amount to about two-thirds of their active-duty pay. But until those checks show up, most disabled veterans draw a reduced Army paycheck.

The amount depends on the soldier's injuries, service time and other factors. But a typical veteran and his family who once lived on $3,400 a month might have to make do with $970 a month.

Unless a soldier has a personal fortune or was so severely injured as to require long-term inpatient care, that can be an extreme hardship.

The Army, stung by the scandal last year over shoddy care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, has been working to help soldiers during the in-between period, said Col. Becky Baker, assigned to injured soldier transition at the U.S. Surgeon General's Office.

In a change in policy that took effect last August, the Army is allowing wounded soldiers to continue to draw their full Army paychecks for up to 90 days after discharge, Baker said. It is also sending more VA workers to Army posts to process claims more quickly, and trying to do a better job of informing soldiers of the available benefits and explaining the application process.

"We make certain that we've covered all the bases before we discharge the soldier," Baker said.

She acknowledged, however, that the changes have been slow to take hold across an Army stretched by war. "It's definitely a practice that is new. It takes awhile for new practices to be institutionalized," the colonel said.

Stevens was moved to the Operation Homefront apartment after a social worker at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii, acting on her own initiative, rescued Stevens from a homeless shelter there.

"This is a situation where someone used their common sense and they did the right thing, versus saying, `This is the rules. We can't do this,'" Tripler spokeswoman Minerva Anderson said of the social worker.

Typically, the first 100 days after discharge are spent just gathering medical and other evidence needed to make a decision on disability, VA officials say. If paperwork is incomplete, or a veteran moves to another state before the claim is decided, the process can drag on longer. Disagree with the VA's decision, and the wait time grows.

"The claims are a lot more complicated than people think," said Ursula Henderson, director of the VA's regional office in Houston.

Amy Palmer, a disabled veteran and vice president of Operation Homefront, which helps newly disabled servicemembers, said: "Nobody's assigned to them. You're on your own once you get out."

Hall is pushing legislation that would force the VA to use compatible computer systems and more consistent criteria and to reach out to veterans better.

"A veteran goes and serves and does what the country asks them to do," the congressman said. "But when they come back they're made to jump through these hoops and to wait in line for disability benefits."

Simon Heine served three tours in Iraq as a tank mechanic before he was discharged with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

His wife quit college so she could figure out how her four children could live on less than $1,000 a month. Eventually, she moved the family of six into an Operation Homefront apartment so they could finish navigating the bureaucracy and wait out the arrival of Social Security and VA benefits.

"It is like giving you a car and taking the steering wheel off. They say, `There is the gas and the brake. Just go straight,' and hopefully, you are going in the right direction," Heine said.

14 comments:

Aviator47 said...

One would think that after four + years, a simple "hand off" program would have been put in place. One where the eligibility for disability income is determined before the service member is discharged. After all, the service member is being discharged because he or she is disabled. But then, I have no idea of how, or on what basis, the Soc Sec Administration or VA awards disability payments.

basilbeast said...

This news story was on the front bottom page of my local paper this morning.

It reminded me of Sen. McCain's opposition to Sen. Webb's GI bill.

Which led to my reading of an article by Douglas Valentine at counterpunch.org about the validity of McCain's war hero status.

There's another piece about McCain's record/history in the Navy at huffingtonpost.com by Jeffrey Klein.

And Gen. Wes Clark on MSNBC denying McCain's credentials on National Security.

Is this the beginning of the Swift-Boating of John McCain or is this a genuine honest look at the man's record?

.

J.D. said...

Attacking McCain's war record is idiotic. The electorate has realized what "Swift-boating" led to, and in any case, it would merely give McCain the chance to make his war record part of the election - and he will go about it differently than Kerry did (Kerry should have called the President a coward and a deserter instead of pretending to be above it all - he should have attacked and attacked and attacked and responded to the "swift-boaters" with questions like "see how they will stoop to anything? And the President won't disavow the attacks on my war record while pretending he did not shirk his duty and avoid Vietnam because of his father" blah blah blah. He didn't. You can bet McCain will - he will point out again and again how Obama did not serve, and he will treat any attack on his war record as an attack on the troops and on all veterans - as Kerry should have.

We should not go there, McCain was a war hero, was wrong on the Iraq war, is wrong on national security issues today, and would make a terrible president, and we respect his war record when we say that. We would hope a war hero would know better, but war heroes don't always have better judgment than the rest of us - as shown by how wrong McCain has been on [insert long list of things he is wrong on and make him defend them rather than defend his "war record"].

That is, in my humble opinion, the way to go - not attacking a brave man's suffering for his nation, but attacking his poor judgment that led others to suffer needlessly and that harmed America. He is a war hero, he is patriotic, and he is wrong. He can be all three, can't he? Or is he saying war heroes are always right? [insert more times he was wrong].

Publius said...

Al: "One would think that after four + years, a simple "hand off" program would have been put in place."

Well, of course, Al is right. You want to talk about moral turpitude, I think you can update your dictionary to include most actions taken by the Bush Administration (that includes the cabinet departments, and the Army is in one of them) WRT the general well being of U.S. service personnel.

And then Basil brings McCain up. Well, despite what JD says, isn't this "war hero" fair game? Especially in view of the fact that he favors continuation of Bush Administration policies? Especially in view of the fact that this "war hero" retired officer has never, ever been in the forefront of those trying to do the honorable thing for the troops?

JD, doublecheck yourself. Yes, McCain was a POW. Yes, that is a terrible thing, something I'd never wish on anyone, and something I'd never want for myself. But in the U.S. military, when we're speaking of POWs, we've never had a simple equation of "POW = hero." Doesn't work that way. Bad luck by itself does not a hero make. You know that as well as I do, and I'm surprised you fall so readily into the McCain mythology trap.

We'll probably never know the full truth about McCain. Both he and the Navy are pulling out all stops to avoid releasing all of the records. But one thing strikes me: the Navy as an institution has always been essentially silent on the whole "hero" business, even way back when this member of a storied Navy family was returned to U.S. control, back when there might have been some good PR value. They're still silent.

JD, double check yourself. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Publius said...

Hey, all you vets, here's a great new service the VA is providing. They'll pay you $30 per month to participate in drug trials, such as the one they've been conducting with 300 vets involving the smoking cessation drug Chantix.

Only one drawback. Some of these drugs have some pretty severe side effects. Chantix, for example, can cause hallucinations and psychotic episodes. Happened to one vet, who almost got lit up by a local PD.

BTW, the VA knew about the side effects, but never informed the guinea pigs, er, veterans involved.

This is from a joint ABC News/Washington Times investigation released today. Check online and you'll find the letters sent by Obama (not a nice letter at all, and it asks for a reply by Friday), and Republican Senator Cornyn (shorter, nicer letter). Yep, this is going to be a good one.

Aviator47 said...

Publius:"the Navy as an institution has always been essentially silent on the whole "hero" business, even way back when this member of a storied Navy family was returned to U.S. control, back when there might have been some good PR value. They're still silent."

I don't think McCain's personnel file would show exceptionally glowing performance, or he would have exited a flag officer. IIRC, he retired as soon as he was eligible to do so and still retain his O-6.

In TV lawyerspeak, if the McCain camp "opens the war hero door" the opposition has every right to keep it open and look inside.

However, I would expect that the general public would never understand the nuances of "faint praise" and other techniques so often used in Fitness Report writing to make a middle of the "pack" or below officer. One would have to see the totality of the reports for his cohort, and that is not going to happen.

Also, the bulk of the population has no reference point for "heroic action" versus "victimhood". His very incarceration is seen as heroic, even though it was not a result of any willfully brave act on his part, but the consequence of just doing his job.

Before you jump down my throat, JD, let me offer that the typical MEDEVAC pilot in RVN is what I am more willing to call "heroic", whether or not he was ever injured. These guys flew a thousand or so hours, half of which was typically into hot LZs, to care for their wounded brethren. They put themselves at grave risk so that others might survive.

Rick 98c said...

Glad to see that there id finally some discussion on the matter of POW = HERO. That seems to be pretty much a Vietnam thing.

McCain is the only Presidential Candidate in American history who has actually surrendered to the enemy. Why does that make him heroic?

basilbeast said...

That is, in my humble opinion, the way to go - not attacking a brave man's suffering for his nation, but attacking his poor judgment that led others to suffer needlessly and that harmed America. He is a war hero, he is patriotic, and he is wrong. He can be all three, can't he? Or is he saying war heroes are always right?

It's been my experience that bad judgement in one matter is often reflected in other matters as well. Former congressman and present guest of a penitentiary in Tuscon, Randall "Duke" Cunningham, was a jet ace in Vietnam, but his recorded war hero status didn't keep him out of corruption, a jacuzzi full of nubiles and eventually the pokey.

I suppose I'm still ticked off about how Kerry was treated in 06, but still Bush Jr.'s lack of judgement in re his reserve duties showed up again in the miserable 8 years of his regime and his lack of true support for our military, as reflected in the article JD put up.

I'm leaning in JD's position on this topic, but damn, if McCain's basic core has more than a few worms in it, I'd think it would be to the country's advantage to know about it.

.

J.D. said...

re: "McCain is the only Presidential Candidate in American history who has actually surrendered to the enemy. Why does that make him heroic?"

The Code of Conduct says that soldiers (and sailors like McCain) should resist as long as they have the means to do so. Downed and wounded pilots in enemy territory surrounded by the enemy no longer have the means to resist, thus what he did was not dishonorable.

Why is he a "hero?" Because despite abuse and torture - or should I say, using Bush's terms, "enhanced interrogation," he gave no statements like the enemy wanted and stayed true to the code of conduct as long as he had the ability to do so - which turned out to be the entire, lengthy period of his captivity. His service in the US Navy was honorable and deserves respect. Attacking his military record because you don't like his politics is swiftboating - it was disgusting and revolting and unpatriotic when it was done to Sen. Kerry, and is just as disgusting and revolting and unpatriotic to do it to Sen. McCain.

It also will not help Obama win the White House, and will instead help McCain win.

As for "questions" about his actual performance, that is BS pure and simple. He had the respect of his fellow prisoners, and his post-captivity service in the US Navy was stellar. His military career was impressive. That means he was, in my opinion, a "hero," but does not in any way, shape or form mean his policies and his politics are right for America.

Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson was heroic too, and tried to his dying day to destroy the Constitution a president is sworn to serve. Would he make a good president? I think not. Gen. Rommel was a heroic general in the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany. Would that mean he would make a good president? I think not. Sen. McCain served this nation well in uniform. Does that mean he will make a good president? I think not. If in doubt, see how "right" he was before and during the debacle of the war in Iraq - he was NEVER right, but only "right-wing." When it came to what was best for America and our troops, he was - and remains - consistently and abysmally wrong.

But don't bash his days in uniform. He deserves respect for his contributions to our republic while in uniform, even if his post-military out-of-uniform contributions have been negative and harmful to that same republic.

Aviator47 said...

JD "and his post-captivity service in the US Navy was stellar. His military career was impressive."

During this period, he attended the National War College, commanded a training squadron for a little over a year, and then was a congressional liaison from 77 until his retirement in 81. His squadron did well, from what can be gleaned.

His post captivity service was not stellar enough to put him on the flag list, although a false rumor that he "turned down promotion to RADM has been floated to brighten his political star. He had less than 2 yrs time on grade as a CAPT when he applied for retirement, requesting the 2 yr mark so he could retire as a CAPT.

His pre-RVN service included flying into power lines, a normally career ending mishap. In fact, he had some 4 or 5 major mishaps during his flying service in peacetime, a significant accomplishment.

His service, other than repeated adulterous affairs, was, by regulation, "Honorable". I mention the adulterous affairs only in the context that the current administration has punished several senior officers for such conduct, so by his party's standards, his service was not fully acceptable.

His actions on the USS Forrestal when fire broke out were brave. By his own admission, he collaborated with his captors, but only he can answer to how much duress he was under.

I don't agree with his politics, but I have no argument with his having served to the standard. I see no clear indication that he was a stellar performer. He was promoted with his peers, not ahead of them. Stellar performers receive "below the zone" promotions. McCain did not.

So, I do not knock his service, just any over-glorified characterization of it.

Rick98c said...

AS Aviator said... I'm not knocking his service, just the agrandizement of it. Just the idea that somehow his service record makes him particularly well-suited to be CINC. Many people would like to use his service record as a suit of armor that protects him from all criticism, so I think an honest appraisal of it is in order. Not sure that calls for cries of "He's a war hero so shut up about it."

Charles Gittings said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles Gittings said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles Gittings said...

Well I have a couple of comments...

Rick says:

"McCain is the only Presidential Candidate in American history who has actually surrendered to the enemy."

That is incorrect. Major George Washington surrendered to the French at Fort Necessity, and could have easily been tried and executed for staging an ambush on (disputed) French territory in peace time (an act which, in the event, touched off the Seven Years War); they instead paroled him.

And the real problem with McCain isn't anything he did as a prisoner under torture, it's the fact that he's been willing to aid and abet torturers in the here and now. THAT one issue is an ABSOLUTE disqualification in regard to any position of public trust -- his current office included.

There's no need to swift boat him: he's a war criminal posing as a humanitarian, and that's as vile as vile gets -- especially as it's motivated by his political ambitions and the attendant need to pander to the Republican base.