Document Shows Army Blocked Help for Soldiers A document from the Department of Veterans Affairs contradicts an assertion by the Army surgeon general that his office did not tell VA officials to stop helping soldiers with military disability paperwork at a New York base. The paperwork aids in figuring benefits.
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Document Shows Army Blocked Help for Soldiers

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Document Shows Army Blocked Help for Soldiers

Document Shows Army Blocked Help for Soldiers

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

And we begin this morning with an update on a story we brought you last week about a meeting between the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs at an Army base in upstate New York. NPR has obtained a document that flatly contradicts the Army surgeon general's account of that meeting. Here's NPR's Ari Shapiro with the story.

ARI SHAPIRO: When I visited Fort Drum in upstate New York last month, soldiers told me they felt betrayed by the groups that are supposed to help them. The Veterans Affairs Department used to help soldiers at Fort Drum Army base with their military disability paperwork. That paperwork can determine whether veterans get health care and disability benefits.

About a year ago, an Army team from Washington told the VA to stop offering that help. The Army wouldn't say who visited the base or why those visitors reigned in the VA. The Army surgeon general's spokeswoman, Cynthia Vaughn, even said it's fine for the VA to help soldiers with their Army paperwork.

Ms. CYNTHIA VAUGHN (Spokeswoman, Army Surgeon General): 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: The day the story aired, the Army surgeon general denied parts of it all together. This is Republican Congressman John McHugh, who represents the Fort Drum area, speaking with North Country Public Radio last week.

Representative JOHN MCHUGH (Republican, New York): The surgeon general of the Army told me very flatly that it was not the Army that told the VA to stop this help.

SHAPIRO: Now NPR has obtained a four-page summary of the Army team's meeting with the VA, and it contradicts the Army surgeon general. One of the VA officials from Fort Drum wrote the document the day after the meeting. It says Colonel Becky Baker of the Army Surgeon General's Office told the VA to discontinue counseling soldiers on the appropriateness of Defense Department ratings because - in her words - there exists a conflict of interest.

Baker referred an interview request to the Army surgeon general's spokeswoman, who rejected NPR's requests for interviews with Baker and the surgeon general. The document says before the Army team's visit, people from the Army inspector general's office came to Fort Drum and told the VA it was providing a useful service to soldiers by reviewing their disability paperwork.

According to the document, the second member of the Army team at Fort Drum last March was Dr. Allen Janusziewicz.

Dr. ALLEN JANUSZIEWICZ (U.S. Army): I was part of the team, and I was probably instrumental in the surgeon general denying that the Army had instructed the VA as such.

SHAPIRO: Janusziewicz retired as deputy assistant surgeon general for the Army in October. He says he has no memory of Baker telling the VA to stop helping soldiers with their military paperwork. But he also says his recollection of the meeting is spotty. It took place a year ago, and it was the last of 11 Army bases he reviewed.

Dr. JANUSZIEWICZ: I believe that document is more likely to represent a miscommunication of intent between what Colonel Baker was trying to get across and what the folks on the receiving end of that communication likely heard.

SHAPIRO: Janusziewicz says he's surprised that soldiers didn't complain about this earlier.

Dr. JANUSZIEWICZ: They're the first and the quickest to spot any inconsistencies, errors or shortcomings and let us know about it.

SHAPIRO: But soldiers are also afraid of retaliation, which is why so few would talk with us for this story. This VA document says the primary purpose for the visit was to, quote, "ensure that there are no other Walter Reed situations at other Army installations." That's a reference to the scandal at the Army hospital in Washington.

And the concern was apparently well-founded. Rosie Taylor recently retired as Fort Drum's disability program manager. At the meeting last March, she described soldiers at the base in conditions of squalor and neglect.

Ms. ROSIE TAYLOR (Former Disability Program Manager, Fort Drum): You know, when you see soldiers crawling on their bellies to go to the bathroom, or soldiers that had had surgery and couldn't go to chow because there was no way to get there.

SHAPIRO: The document says one soldier was bedridden for three days without a change of clothes or a meal. Taylor says nobody listened to her complaints until the Walter Reed scandal.

Ms. TAYLOR: Every time I walked into a meeting before, I was, like, oh my God, there goes $70,000. And after Walter Reed hit the fan, it was, like, I was getting phone calls. Rosie, we're doing over a billion. We need your advice on access.

SHAPIRO: Taylor says the accessibility problems have generally been solved. She doesn't remember whether the Army told the VA to stop helping soldiers with their disability paperwork or not. But she will say this about Fort Drum's VA workers:

Ms. TAYLOR: They stand on their heads for soldiers. They put their jobs on the line for soldiers. They don't care if they're not supposed to do something. If a soldier needs something done, they do it anyway.

SHAPIRO: New York Senator Hillary Clinton has already asked the Army to investigate the situation at Fort Drum. She called the allegations in last week's report deeply disturbing. Whether the situation at the Army base is a result of poor communication, poor memory or something else altogether, the result is the same: For the last year, hundreds of disabled soldiers at Fort Drum have received less help with their disability paperwork than the veterans who came before them.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can read the document describing the Fort Drum meeting and hear Ari's original piece on the controversy at npr.org.

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