Wounded Soldier's Care Tangled in Military System After Spc. Ron Hinkle was wounded by an IED blast in Iraq, the Army failed to properly document the brain injury he suffered. That has cost his family tens of thousands of dollars, including special payments reserved for injured soldiers.
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Wounded Soldier's Care Tangled in Military System

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Wounded Soldier's Care Tangled in Military System

Wounded Soldier's Care Tangled in Military System

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left troops at home with a difficult task, fighting and preparing for war while also supporting the wounded and their families. Last night, we met Army specialist Ronald Hinkle and his family. They struggled to adjust to life after his head injury.

Tonight, we're going to hear how the Army has helped and has failed the Hinkles.

Here is NPR's Howard Berkes.

HOWARD BERKES: It's hard to get inside the Colorado ranch home of Ron and Reece Hinkle without wading through a rambunctious pack of dogs.

REECE HINKLE: Dogs, lay down.

RONALD HINKLE: Yeah, right.

HINKLE: Calm down.

BERKES: But once inside, dogs and all, it's harder to get past the memories, the photographs and display cases in the entryway chronicling a military career cut short by a bomb blast in Iraq. There's a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, and a special Army snapshot Reece was only supposed to receive if Ron never made it home.

HINKLE: And it was very hard for me for a long time to look at that picture. We're probably the only family to have that photograph and the soldier is still alive. To me it's like an achievement. You know, we conquered the hurt that very few do.

BERKES: Ron Hinkle survived his wounds, but he'll probably never work again due to traumatic brain injury. And there are big medical bills along with plunges in income.

ROGER STRADLEY: They have a beautiful little ranch in Colorado, and they're probably going to lose it, quite frankly. And it's not their fault.

BERKES: Roger Stradley is a retired Army command sergeant major who now directs a military family support group called USACares.

STRADLEY: We received thousand of requests for help, and when we first heard the story it was just incomprehensible that so many things could happen to a family in such a short period of time. We couldn't believe it.

BERKES: Some of the things are clearly beyond the control of the Army, but not all of them, including confusing advice that put the Hinkles in the wrong military insurance plan, leaving them with $18,000 in family medical bills, misinformation that left them with $5,000 in unpaid travel expenses for Ron's medical care, the failure of the Army to properly document Ron's war injury, costing the family $70,000 in special payments reserved for wounded soldiers, and bureaucratic errors costing Ron half his military pay last month.

The Hinkles may never see most of this money. And that has them at the brink of financial ruin. Roger Stradley of USACares.

STRADLEY: The normal things that could have been done, they don't come out until, you know, 12, 14 months later. And by then, the damage has done to their credit, the damage has done to their life.

BERKES: Stradley sees military families struggling like this all the time. A big problem seems to be the Army's reliance on an injured soldier's regular unit for a family and logistical support once they're out the hospital. It's all left to rear detachment commanders like Captain Matt Staton, who commanded Ron Hinkle's home unit until he retired from Fort Carson, Colorado last month.

MATT STATON: It can get very overwhelming very quickly because you have replacement soldiers that you ensure that they get trained up to go over. You have killed-in-action soldiers to handle their families to ensure they're getting all the proper benefits on top your normal day-to-day operations that you had to conduct.

BERKES: Staton himself suffered a traumatic brain injury, complicating his rear detachment work. And he doesn't believe he was fully prepared for the job.

DEBORAH BERTHOLD: I don't think they fell through the cracks. I think their situation was unique.

BERKES: Deborah Berthold focused on the Hinkles when she worked for the Army's new Wounded Warrior program, an attempt at systematic support.

BERTHOLD: There was no one agency, organization or caseworker that really had the ability to look at the whole picture and provide them services. I don't think any one person understood the scope of everything that what was going on in this family's life.

BERKES: The Army has an even newer program called the Warrior Transition Unit. It gathers wounded soldiers in special units devoted solely to them and their families. But that won't help Ron Hinkle, who retires from the Army this month and simply shrugs his shoulders at all the problems. His 14-year-old daughter Rebecca is not ambivalent.

REBECCA HINKLES: Basically, what the military made us feel like is, you're good enough to fight for me, but you're not good enough for me when you lay down on the bed and you're dying. That's exactly how they made you feel.

BERKES: The secretary of the Army and the senior command at Fort Carson, Colorado declined to speak with NPR for this story. USACares and other groups have been raising money and providing other assistance, but it all may be too late to keep the Hinkles from losing the life Ron Hinkle fought to protect.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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