Private Attorneys Fight for Disabled Veterans

In the last five years, as thousands of veterans have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with debilitating injuries, the Army has actually awarded fewer soldiers full disability retirement benefits than they did before the war started. Private attorneys have stepped in to help disabled soldiers get the benefits they deserve.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.

In the five years since the Iraq War began, tens of thousands of injured troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have gone through a military rating process to determine how disabled they are.

A high rating brings health care, annual disability payments and special job programs. If you rate under 30-percent disabled, you get a one-time severance package and no military health-care benefits.

Now soldiers who think the military has low-balled their ratings have a new tool. High-powered lawyers from private firms are volunteering to help servicemen and -women challenge their disability ratings.

One soldier who's benefited from a private lawyer's help is Sergeant Grayson Norris Galadis(ph). He lives in a tiny bedroom on the campus of Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington.

(Soundbite of clock chime)

SHAPIRO: Galadis repairs old clocks while he waits for his body to repair itself. Three years ago, he was in Iraq and went out to rescue a vehicle that ran over an improvised explosive device.

Sergeant GRAYSON NORRIS GALADIS (Injured Soldier): And on the way out to the site of the IED blast, I ran over an IED.

SHAPIRO: Shrapnel shot up from underneath him, broke his tailbone, nicked his spine.

Sgt. GALADIS: And it went into my abdomen and pretty much just wasted just about everything in there, you know, kidneys, liver, spleen, all that good stuff.

SHAPIRO: Almost a week after the blast, Galadis emerged from a drug-induced coma at Walter Reed. His abdomen was open for three months while doctors washed his internal organs day after day. They removed a third of his colon. He has graphic photos on his bedroom wall showing him on the operating table.

Why do you keep these pictures up here?

Sgt. GALADIS: Well, it's a constant reminder to me as to how lucky I am compared to other people. I would say that if that had happened to me in Korea or Vietnam, I would be dead today.

SHAPIRO: When Galadis recovered enough to be discharged from the military, a doctor classified his abdominal injuries as a hernia. The army said the hernia was not enough to disqualify him from military service, but Galadis also had a sleep apnea and a drop-foot that made him unfit for duty.

The army was prepared to declare Galadis roughly 30-percent disabled. That's when he brought in an outside lawyer. Aaron Holtz(ph) was a newly minted attorney, fresh out of law school, working at a major D.C. firm.

Mr.�AARON HOLTZ (Attorney): I knew nothing about military disability, nothing about Walter Reed. I'd actually never been to Walter Reed. I thought I knew a lot of acronyms, haven't been in Washington for, you know, a number of years, but this was a whole new challenge.

SHAPIRO: Holtz learned to navigate the army's massive medical bureaucracy, and then he persuaded the army to change Galadis' rating. The so-called hernia alone suddenly made him 50-percent disabled - it was zero-percent before. Add the sleep apnea and the drop-foot, and the army now considers Galadis 80-percent disabled. That gives him all kinds of resources he wouldn't have had with a lower rating. Holtz says cases like this one are common.

Mr.�HOLTZ: The process is not working to the extent that the Department of Defense hopes.

SHAPIRO: It sounds like you're being very generous here.

Mr.�HOLTZ: I'm trying to be diplomatic. I think that some of it is just laziness, some of it is not paying attention, sometimes it's complete negligence, sometimes it's just a clerical error, but the impact of those errors has grave consequences for each individual soldier.

SHAPIRO: According to a report by the Government Accountability Office, there's a surprising trend in the way army veterans have been rated for disabilities. The GAO looked at how many soldiers received permanent disability retirement in the last several years.

In 2001, before the war began, more than 600 soldiers retired with permanent disability benefits. By 2005, with the Iraq War raging, only about 200 did. That's a third as many as before the war.

The army says those numbers don't reflect what's actually going on. They say the year people receive benefits isn't necessarily the year they originally applied for them, and the chart classifies soldiers by when they first applied, not when they finally get the benefits. In fact, the army says permanent disability numbers are actually going up, from about 200 soldiers in 2001 to about 300 in '06.

At a recent House committee hearing, Army Surgeon General Eric Schoomaker said he's doing everything he can to make the system work for soldiers.

Army Surgeon General ERIC SCHOOMAKER (United States Army): We as an army are committed to getting this right and to providing a level of care and support to our warriors and families that's equal to the quality of their service.

SHAPIRO: There are army officials assigned to represent soldiers through the disability rating process, but disabled veterans report that those people are overburdened. Servicemen and -woman can also request representation by a military lawyer. Sergeant Diane Cochran(ph) of Springfield, Illinois chose not to do that when it came time for her to appeal her disability rating.

Cochran served in the army for 27 years. She injured her spine a few years ago, when her vehicle rolled over in Kandahar, Afghanistan. After the army rated her zero-percent disabled, Cochran asked a private lawyer to help.

Sergeant DIANE COCHRAN (Injured Soldier): Because you know, I always had the army's best interest in mind, and I always thought they had my best interest in mind also, but it became apparent that maybe they didn't, and at that point, I was skeptical to use a military lawyer for the same reason that I always had the best interest of the military in mind, well so do the military lawyers.

SHAPIRO: Cochran used to shout commands and sing in a choir. Now because the rollover injured her voice box, she can't do either of those things. She also suffers severe migraines, and she walks with a cane. Cochran's attorney, Beth Burrows(ph), has a well-appointed office in Washington with an expansive view of the Potomac River.

Was there ever a moment at Walter Reed where you felt a sense of culture shock?

Ms.�BETH BURROWS (Attorney): Oh, the level of inefficiency with which the system works was a little shocking.

SHAPIRO: For example, Burrows needed Cochran to send her some documents.

Ms.�BURROWS: She had to go to somebody and kind of talk them into faxing it for her. I mean, this is like crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: And here at a big firm, you must be used to sending a courier service to go pick up the papers

Mr.�BURROW: It's very easy, yes. Send a courier service, do whatever. I mean, we can get things done very quickly and efficiently. I mean, that's what we get paid for. It's just a very different system, and it just seems like it maybe doesn't really have to be.

SHAPIRO: Burrows got the army to boost Cochran's rating from zero- to 40-percent disabled. This alliance between private law firms and disabled soldiers began about a year ago, through a group called Disabled American Veterans. DAV has connected about 75 people with private lawyers. Eight Washington firms are involved, and George Washington Law School is even starting a clinic to train students in this area.

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, who co-chaired President Bush's Commission on Veterans Care, says the help from private lawyers is great, but it's not a permanent solution.

Ms. DONNA SHALALA (Former Secretary, Department of Health and Human Services): Who is going to object to a lawyer or anyone else helping a soldier get what they're entitled to, but the fact is it simply shores up a system that is fundamentally unfair and needs systemic change.

SHAPIRO: Congress wants the army to make those changes, and the army has taken steps in that direction, but the fixes will come too late for some people.

A year ago, NPR talked with Army Sergeant Mark Croft(ph). His wife, April Wheeler(ph), was in the hospital at the time, receiving a bone marrow transplant for leukemia.

Sergeant MART CROFT (United States Army): They told her that she was only eligible for a 10-percent rating for disability with the illness of leukemia. She was livid.

SHAPIRO: Six months after her husband spoke with NPR, April died, leaving two children behind. Her parents have brought in a private lawyer to challenge their late daughter's disability rating.

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