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Former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, who co-chaired President Bush's commission on veterans' care, says the whole disability rating system is broken and needs to change.
Former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, who co-chaired President Bush's commission on veterans' care, says the whole disability rating system is broken and needs to change. Stephanie Kuykendal/Getty Images
Army officials in upstate New York instructed representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs not to help disabled soldiers at Fort Drum Army base with their military disability paperwork last year. That paperwork can be crucial because it helps determine whether soldiers will get annual disability payments and health care after they're discharged.
Now soldiers at Fort Drum say they feel betrayed by the institutions that are supposed to support them. The soldiers want to know why the Army would want to stop them from getting help with their disability paperwork and why the VA— whose mission is to help veterans — would agree to the Army's request.
'A Worn Pair of Boots'
One disabled soldier, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears retaliation from the military, says it feels like a slap in the face.
"To be tossed aside like a worn-out pair of boots is pretty disheartening," the soldier says. "I always believed the Army would take care of me if I did the best I could, and I've done that."
At a restaurant near Fort Drum, the soldier described his first briefing with the VA office on base. According to the soldier, the VA official told a classroom full of injured troops, "We cannot help you review the narrative summaries of your medical problems." The official said the VA used to help soldiers with the paperwork, but Army officials saw soldiers from Fort Drum getting higher disability ratings with the VA's help than soldiers from other bases. The Army told the VA to stop helping Fort Drum soldiers describe their army injuries, and the VA did as it was told.
It's unclear why the Army wanted to stop the soldiers from getting help with the disability paperwork. Cynthia Vaughan, spokeswoman for the Army surgeon general, says the VA was not doing anything wrong by helping soldiers at Fort Drum.
"There is no Army policy on outside help in reviewing and/or assisting soldiers in rewriting their narratives during the 10-day period which they have to review them," Vaughan says.
She says the officers who asked the VA to stop helping Fort Drum's soldiers were part of what the Army calls a "Tiger Team"— an ad-hoc group assigned to investigate, in this case, medical disability benefits.
According to Army spokesman George Wright, the Tiger Team thought the VA should not be helping soldiers with their medical documents. The Army delivered that message to VA officials in Buffalo, N.Y., who went along with the request, even though the VA's assistance complied with Army policy.
The Army declined to provide any information about the Tiger Team members' identities or their motivations in asking the VA to stop reviewing the soldiers' paperwork. However, private attorney Mara Hurwitt points out that the Army has a financial incentive to keep soldiers' disability ratings low.
"The more soldiers you have who get disability retirements, the more retirement pay is coming out of your budget," Hurwitt says.
Qualified to Help?
Another question is why the VA would go along with the Army's request.
Tom Pamperin, deputy director of the VA's compensation and pension service, believes VA officers are not qualified to help with soldiers' disability paperwork.
"We do not train our employees in the intricacies of the Defense Department's disability evaluation system, so we would feel that it would be inappropriate for our employees to apply VA standards to a Defense Department process," Pamperin says.
But Hurwitt argues the VA is more equipped than anyone to help soldiers with their paperwork.
"VA counselors understand the disabilities, what the different kinds of conditions are, how they should be properly described in the paperwork," Hurwitt says.
She points out that VA officials have to look at a soldier's medical history anyway to counsel him or her on VA benefits, which are separate from Army benefits.
"Really what it comes down to is you're just helping the soldier get what he's entitled to under law," Hurwitt says.
This is just the latest in a string of controversies about disability payments for injured veterans.
Former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, who co-chaired President Bush's recent commission on veterans' care, says stories like this one show how the whole disability rating system is broken and needs to change.
The system is "fundamentally unfair," according to Shalala, "and that's the point about the need for reform in the system. It has to be reformed for everyone."