MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Troops injured in Afghanistan or Iraq go to a variety of places for medical care, depending on how badly they're wounded and whether they're still active or discharged.
Walter Reed Army Medical Center treats active duty military and is part of the Department of Defense. The Veterans Affairs Department runs the VA health system which is for discharged veterans.
Here to help understand the maze of the two systems is Bobby Muller. He's the president of Veterans for America and he was injured in Vietnam as a Marine, he joins us from his office here in Washington, D.C. Thanks for being with us.
Mr. BOBBY MULLER (President, Veterans for America; Former U.S. Marine, Vietnam): My pleasure.
BLOCK: And let's consider the case of a soldier who, say, is wounded in Iraq. If that's a serious enough injury that he or she is sent home, what - where would that soldier go first?
Mr. MULLER: Depends on the branch of service because you've got naval facilities, like Bethesda; you have Army facilities, like Walter Reed - but you got to come back to a military hospital. A lot of folks in this country have been confused - Walter Reed is a military hospital - the people there are soldiers, and to some extent, some retirees. And the veterans hospitals are when you're separated from the service and you become a veteran - and it's 164 hospitals system, nationwide. It's got millions of patients and it's a different population.
What we're finding today, is that the returning people from these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, are getting good acute medical care for traumatic brain injury, amputations, etc., but then are languishing at these facilities until they go through the adjudication process of getting a disability rating from the Physical Evaluation Review Board that determines whether or not they go back to active duty or they separate from the service and become veterans.
BLOCK: And that would be one question of when they would move from one system, the Department of Defense system, into the veterans system.
Mr. MULLER: Well that's a problem that is dependent on a decision about how serious the illness or the disability is. What we're finding is that a lot of people coming back with obvious disabilities that will render them useless for active military service, are still taking many months to simply get separated because of the backlog at Walter Reed, for example.
One of our guys here took a bullet through the head in Iraq, and even though he had a plate in his head and there was no doubt that he was going to leave active military service, it took them eight months to simply process the paperwork to get out.
BLOCK: Does the system work differently if someone is in the reserves or the National Guard?
Mr. MULLER: No. They come back, they have to deal with the same process. There are people that have been activated on military duty that wind up getting sick or wounded and have to go through the same mechanism - facilities - as regular active military duty service members.
BLOCK: And are the benefits the same?
Mr. MULLER: Yeah.
BLOCK: When I spoke yesterday with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, James Nicholson, he told me that they were going to be adding more patient advocates to help steer people through this system and also would attack the backlog of cases. Do you think that's realistic, and will that help the problem?
Mr. MULLER: It will definitely help the problem. It's, you know, critically necessary. It is backed up to the point where case officers only get to meet the soldier the day of or in some cases the day before the appearance before the review boards. It is routine for us to find people waiting upwards of a year to get processed out, and that's just nuts.
BLOCK: Is the backlog, do you think, a factor of the sheer numbers of soldiers who are coming back who've been wounded, or is it more-cumbersome paperwork and not enough people at this end to process things?
Mr. MULLER: It should be no surprise that we send troops into this war without equipment, protection, numbers and the supports that they needed - so if we did the bum's rush in putting them into the war, there's been no planning on the back end here with both the Veterans Administration as well as DOD to deal with the casualties. You've got a crushing load that has come in on the existing structures that have not been ramped up to deal with casualties of war. We've had well over 50,000 that have been medically evacuated out of Iraq, and it's breaking the system.
BLOCK: Bobby Muller is president of Veterans for America. Mr. Muller, thanks for talking with us today.
Mr. MULLER: My pleasure.
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