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The Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs are separate agencies of the federal government. The Army does not supervise the VA. With that in mind, this next story might sound surprising.
At a military base in upstate New York, someone from the Army recently told the VA to stop helping injured soldiers apply for some of their disability benefits. And the VA said okay.
NPR's Ari Shapiro explains.
ARI SHAPIRO: Fort Drum is an Army base in the part of New York that locals call the North Country, just a short drive from the Canadian border. It's an icy, bright place in January, where the landscape is all brown and white. Just a few miles off the base, I sit in a frigid car with a soldier who was injured in Iraq. He'll only let us broadcast his comments if we alter his voice and keep him anonymous. He's afraid of retaliation.
We just finished breakfast in a nearby restaurant, but he didn't feel comfortable talking into a microphone there. Now, I can see his breath as he tells the story of his interactions with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Unidentified Man (Army Soldier): I don't feel that there is anything the VA was doing that was unauthorized or illegal or immoral.
SHAPIRO: This soldier and hundreds of others at Fort Drum need help getting disability benefits as they reach the end of their military service. As one of the first steps, an Army doctor gives each soldier what's called a narrative summary of their medical problems. That document helps determine whether the soldier will get an annual disability stipend and health care, so it's very important.
Unidentified Man: If your medical condition isn't worded correctly, you stand a chance of losing percentages of disability.
(Soundbite of noisy crowd)
SHAPIRO: When we sat talking in the restaurant, the soldier pulled his cap low over his eyes and let his food go cold in front of him as he described his first briefing from the Veterans Affairs office at Fort Drum. He said 20 or 30 injured soldiers sat in the classroom. The VA official stood up in front of the group and said, we cannot help you review the narrative summaries of your medical problems.
The man from VA told the class that the VA used to help soldiers with Army medical paperwork, but some Army folks didn't like that. The VA instructor told the troops that an Army team from Washington complained to the VA regional office in Buffalo. The instructor said these Army officials saw soldiers from Fort Drum getting higher disability ratings because of the VA's help. So the Army told the VA, knock it off. Stop helping Fort Drum soldiers describe their Army injuries. And the VA did as it was told.
Talking on tape back in the car, the soldier says the situation seems ridiculous.
Unidentified Man: If the VA is doing an outstanding job in this one particular area, why not make that military-wide, or Army-wide, military-wide, so everybody benefits from that instead of restraining one group that is excelling to lower the standard back to where the rest of the military is.
SHAPIRO: This soldier has been in the Army for years.
Unidentified Man: To be tossed aside like a worn-out pair of boots is pretty disheartening. I always believed the Army would take care of me if I did the best that I could, and I've done that. It's kind of a slap in the face to find out otherwise after all this time.
SHAPIRO: So why would the Army want to stop this soldier from getting help filling out his paperwork?
Well, when I first asked the question, no one knew what I was talking about. The public affairs officer at Fort Drum referred me to the Army's physical disability agency in Washington. They sent me to the main Army public affairs office, where a spokesman said he had no record of the incident. He sent me to the Army surgeon general's office where the spokesperson, Cynthia Vaughan, left a message on my answering machine, saying Army policy is: anyone, including the VA, can help soldiers with their military paperwork.
Ms. CYNTHIA VAUGHN (Spokesperson, VA Public Affairs Office): 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.
SHAPIRO: Finally, the VA found details about who from the Army took the trip to upstate New York. They 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, these men thought the VA should not be helping soldiers with their Army medical paperwork. So they went to upstate New York and said as much. The VA didn't put up a fight. And because of that, the VA stopped helping hundreds of soldiers at Fort Drum, even though the Army's official policy says there's nothing wrong with what the VA was doing.
The Army said it could not put us in touch with the Tiger Team members, so we have no way of knowing their motivations. But we do know this: Higher disability ratings cost the Army money.
Mara Hurwitt is a private lawyer who's represented injured soldiers.
Ms. MARA HURWITT (Attorney): It's the Army budget. Now, whether - I'm not going to say that's why they're doing it, but you know, when it comes down to it, the more soldiers you have who get disability retirements, the more retirement pay that's coming out of your budget.
SHAPIRO: And we're left with another question. Why would the VA, an organization whose mission is to help veterans, go along with the Army's request to stop helping disabled soldiers with their military paperwork?
Tom Pamperin is deputy director of the VA's compensation and pension service. He says VA officers are not qualified for that kind of work.
Mr. TOM PAMPERIN (Deputy Director, Compensation and Pension Service, Department of Veterans Affairs): We do not train our employees in the intricacies of the DOD disability evaluation system, so we would feel that it would be inappropriate for our employees to apply VA standards to a DOD process.
SHAPIRO: But other people in the system say the VA is more equipped than anyone to help soldiers with their Defense Department paperwork. Here's Attorney Mara Hurwitt again.
Ms. HURWITT: The VA counselors understand the disabilities, what the different kinds of conditions are, how they should be properly described in the paperwork. So for a lot of soldiers, that may be the only assistance they have.
SHAPIRO: And Hurwitt says VA officials have to look at the soldier's medical history anyway to counsel them on VA benefits, which are separate from Army benefits.
Ms. HURWITT: Really what it comes down to is you're just helping the soldier get what he's entitled to under law, under statute and regulations. So I don't see why there should be a problem with that.
SHAPIRO: The group Disabled American Veterans is allowed to help soldiers with their military paperwork.
Danny Soto represents the group at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington. He said the VA doesn't like to disobey people from the Defense Department because base commanders have a lot of power to control contact with soldiers.
Mr. DANNY SOTO (National Service Officer, Disabled American Veterans): Access to these folks is granted by the graciousness of the Army. You know, coming on post, giving presentations. They can limit the scoop of your access. If you want to go talk to the masses, you got to do it on their terms.
SHAPIRO: This is just the latest in a string of controversies about disability payments for injured veterans.
Former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala co-chaired the president's recent commission on veterans care. She says stories like this one show how the whole disability rating system is broken and needs to change.
Ms. DONNA SHALALA (Former Health and Human Services Secretary): It's fundamentally unfair. That's the point about the need for reform in the system. It has to be reformed for everyone. It has to be straightforward. And all of us have to believe that it's fair for every soldier, every veteran.
SHAPIRO: There have been congressional hearings, commissions and reports on how to fix the system. So far, none of that has helped injured soldiers at Fort Drum, who now have less help getting their disability benefits than they did before.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News.
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