Wounded Soldier Fights for Health Benefits

One soldier's fight to get disability benefits after being wounded in Iraq illustrates a much more widespread problem. Some soldiers claim it has actually gotten harder to receive health benefits since the war began.

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Now the Army's inspector general yesterday released a report criticizing the disability system. The report says the process for evaluating injuries is inconsistent and difficult to navigate. Some soldiers say it's worse than that. They say it is simply harder to get disability benefits since the start of the Iraq war.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE: Two years ago in Baghdad a sniper shot Sergeant Joe Bowman(ph). The bullet went through his stomach and left him with weakened muscles on his right side and chronic back pain. He's also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sergeant JOE BOWMAN (U.S. Army): It's hard for me to be in crowds, go to the grocery store. It's hard for me to function because I try to stay away from people, try to keep my distance.

KASTE: Today the 22-year-old is back home in Petaluma, California. He's still on active duty, working in the local armory while he waits for the Army to decide what to do with him. He wants to get permanent disability, essentially a medical retirement with a pension and lifetime health insurance for him and his family.

He thought the process would be quick and easy, but he says the bureaucracy has been surprisingly hostile, especially when it comes to his PTSD.

Sgt. BOWMAN: It felt like I was in basic training again. You feel really small in front of these people.

KASTE: So Bowman did what very few wounded soldiers do - he brought in his own lawyer. In this case, his former National Guard commander, Jesse Miller, who happens to be an attorney for the high-powered firm Reed Smith. Miller is doing the case pro bono, and he says he doubts most enlisted men would be able to afford the hundreds of hours of legal work that it's taking to keep Bowman's disability claim alive.

Mr. JESSE MILLER (Attorney, Reed Smith): Part of this system is designed to make sure that the Army is not paying benefits to soldiers that don't otherwise deserve them. But it shouldn't be designed to ferret out the one malingerer out of 10 at the expense of the other nine's procedural rights.

KASTE: But while Sgt. Bowman accuses the Army of shortchanging him to help pay for the war, Miller, who's still in the Reserves, measures his words more carefully.

Mr. MILLER: I don't know that. I think that this system functions much better during peacetime than it does during wartime.

KASTE: The numbers seem to bare this out. A Government Accountability Office report shows fewer soldiers are getting permanent disability now than in peacetime. The Army disputes this. It says the number has gone up some. In response, the GAO rechecked its data and it stands by its original conclusion. The number has gone down, it says.

Putting aside the statistical dispute, the general in charge of the Army's disability agency says the criteria for the disability have not changed. Brigadier General Reuben Jones says even the rising tide of PTSD cases is not being handled any differently than before.

Brigadier General REUBEN JONES (U.S. Army): The complexity of those injuries, the complexity of the diagnosis, they place a challenge on our great Army. But we're Army strong and we're going to go out and do the best for our soldiers.

KASTE: The Army is generally thought to be more skeptical about PTSD than, say, the Department of Veterans Affairs. And some mental health professionals say there's good reason for that skepticism. Sally Satel is a former VA psychiatrist who now works for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-thank. She says PTSD should not necessarily lead to disability and retirement.

Ms. SALLY SATEL (American Enterprise Institute): There are people who do need it and thank goodness it's available for them. But I really have to be aware about labeling too many people too quickly. Because to classify them as permanently and totally disabled, take them out of the workforce, take them out of what essentially is the best therapy they could have, which is a job, would be a great crime.

KASTE: She says soldiers with PTSD should be treated and evaluated for at least a couple of years before they're pushed into medical retirement.

But back in Petaluma, Sgt. Bowman says that's the last thing he wants. As long as the Army keeps him in limbo reevaluating his condition, he says he'll be forced to keep reliving the events of April 15, 2005, the day he was shot.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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