Injured vets still await disability appeal process

By: AP
By: AP

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) -- There was nothing dramatic about how Spc. Cristapher Zuetlau's career in the Army came to an end: he stepped in a hole. But the damage to the tank crewman's wrenched back was so brutal he can barely walk.

The Army agreed he was no longer fit to serve, but in doing so determined his disability was not severe enough to warrant long-term care by the military. That turned his health care over to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which left him with no retirement benefits and cut off his family from government health care.

Thousands of similar stories caused veterans advocates to protest that the military was manipulating disability ratings to save money, and Congress last year ordered the Pentagon to accept appeals from wounded and injured troops.

So far, officials have yet to examine a single case.

"Congress finally took action to give those troops a fair hearing, and now the Department of Defense is dragging its feet," said Vanessa Williamson, the policy director at New York-based Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a veterans' advocacy group. "Establishing the review board was clearly not the Department of Defense's priority. And that's a real shame."

In the Army alone, thousands of soldiers injured since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - including many hurt in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan - are eligible for a review of the numerical disability rating issued by the Army's Physical Evaluation Board.

That rating is critical.

A number is assigned to the disability based on its severity and long-term impact. Those rated below 30 percent disabled receive a severance payment that is taxed instead of a monthly retirement check. The veteran continues to get health care, but from the VA rather than the military. But his family, once covered by military health insurance, no longer receives government provided health care.

A rating above 30 percent means a service member gets a monthly retirement check and his family is eligible for care at military hospitals.

"I feel like the Army has ripped me off," said Zuetlau's wife, Breana. "When he joined the service he was a fully functioning man. When he left the service, he is like my child. I have to take care of his needs. He should have been retired instead of just being kicked out."

Investigations by the Defense Department and The Washington Post found inconsistencies in how the military assigns disability ratings. Veterans advocates claim injuries rated below 30 percent by the Defense Department were being rated much higher by the Department of Veterans Affairs, while the government's Veterans Disability Benefits Commission has found the Army consistently assigns the lowest ratings.

The VA, for example, rated Zuetlau 100 percent disabled, and the Social Security Administration found him eligible for disability benefits for the back injury and several other ailments, including mental health issues, right shoulder tendinitis, and injuries to a wrist and knee.

The three-member Physical Disability Board of Review, created by Congress last December and managed by the Air Force, is charged with reviewing appeals from members and former members of the armed forces who received disability ratings of less than 30 percent.

Before Congress ordered this streamlined review process, veterans were subjected to a lengthy review by a military panel that rarely changed the ratings.

The board was supposed to be in place 90 days after the bill was signed, according to the Congressional mandate. But its formation wasn't formally announced until June, and officials have said they hope to take the first application for review this month.

"They move slow on those things they don't like to do," said retired Army Lt. Col. Mike Parker, an advocate for wounded soldiers. "If the Senate or House had approved a major acquisition program in their version of the (budget) that DOD had proposed, DOD would be ready to hit the ground running when the (budget) finally passed."

Eileen M. Lainez, a spokeswoman in the Defense Press Office at the Pentagon, said in an e-mail the panel's creation was delayed because the Defense Department had to create the application process, Internet information sites and develop training programs for newly hired staff.

Loren Dealy, a spokeswoman from the House Armed Services Committee, said lawmakers are not concerned about the delay, but are "keeping an eye on the progress of the board."

But veterans advocates said the delays reinforce a belief the Defense Department is trying to move wounded veterans off its financial books so that the service, already strapped for resources as it fights two wars, doesn't have to pay for long-term disability care. It is a claim the Defense Department strongly denies.

"I can assure you that budgetary constraints do not factor into adjudications at any point," Lainez said. "This has never been a factor and it will not be in the future."

Not all advocates are upset with the slow pace. Jim Lorraine, who heads the care coalition at the military's Special Operations Command, said his organization is spreading the word, telling veterans to keep track of records and to be prepared to submit applications.

"I'd like to be the first one to flood them with records when they are ready to go," he said.

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