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Veterans Struggle for Adequate Disability Compensation

July 23, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Next, getting disability payments for men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. NewsHour correspondent Betty Ann Bowser has our story.

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: The combat injuries that Sergeant Daniel Webb suffered as an infantryman in Iraq have brought him to a pain management specialist at Colorado Springs Memorial Hospital.

FORMER SGT. DANIEL WEBB, U.S. Army: All I know is, we was on a night mission. We was walking. One minute, I’m standing; the next minute, I’m on the ground.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Webb fell in a hole that night. He was given pain medication and continued his mission, but one week later, on another night mission, a wall fell on him. After that, his pain became severe.

DANIEL WEBB: It got to the point where I just couldn’t take it anymore. I felt like I couldn’t really walk, could hardly move.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: An MRI showed three herniated discs, L3, -4 and -5. Doctors told Webb he was not a candidate for spinal fusion, so instead they implanted a morphine pump to help ease the severe chronic pain.

DOCTOR: The catheter actually is tunneled under the skin and connected here to the pump — and go ahead and roll back over, Dan — to the pump, so that the medicine then is pumped through the pump, through the catheter, to where the nerves come off his spinal cord.

The Army's rating system

DANIEL WEBB: If I didn't have it in me, I could hardly move, because I just -- I would be in too much pain. I couldn't -- I couldn't move. I mean, it just got to the point where my legs went numb. I've had my legs collapse out from under me because I guess it's a disc hitting on the nerve or whatever in the spinal cord.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Last week, after six years' active duty and seven years in the Reserves, Sergeant Daniel Webb was given a medical discharge. Webb understands why the Army deemed him unfit for service, but what he doesn't understand -- and what veterans' advocates say is unfair -- is the amount of money Webb received from the Army for his disability.

Webb was given a $30,000 disability severance from the Army and has moved his family off base and into a campsite until he can find affordable housing. Lawyer Ron Smith, with Disabled American Veterans, says the Army woefully underrated the severity of Sergeant Webb's injury and awarded him far too little in compensation.

RON SMITH, Disabled American Veterans: It's a very bad decision for Sergeant Webb. His case has been terribly underrated. And the other bad news is that he is by no means alone. We've looked at this point at several hundred of these, and we have yet to find one that we looked at and we thought, "This was done right."

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Disability compensation for soldiers deemed medically unfit for service is based on a rating system. That system has come under criticism as the number of casualties in Iraq grows.

Injuries are evaluated by boards from each branch of the Armed Service and then given a rating, or percentage, based on the severity of the injury. Ratings are important, because with a rating of 30 percent or higher the soldier gets disability income and benefits for life. Webb was given a 10 percent rating.

RON SMITH: The most egregious part of it is that he received a 10 percent disability rating. Now, this is a man who is in such intractable pain that it can only be partially relieved by constant injections of morphine through an implanted morphine pump.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Smith says high-level disability ratings have declined since the war began, a situation he says is hard to explain.

RON SMITH: It's about keeping faith with the people who are defending the country. The soldiers and sailors who are in Iraq and Afghanistan didn't pick that war. They're doing the job they agreed to do for you, and for me, and for everyone in the United States of America.

In exchange for that, they were told that, if bad things happen to them, they would have benefits that would help them and their families, compensate them for the losses that they've sustained.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Some of the problems, he says, could be in the way the military perceives injuries, like traumatic brain injury, severe pain, or post-traumatic stress disorder, because they're less obvious.

RON SMITH: There is a prejudice in the system against the disabilities that you can't see. If you go to either the Army or the V.A. and you've lost your left leg below the knees, it's pretty clear what your disability is, and there's a very specific disability rating for that. But there's a lot of suspicion about people with mental disorders, in particular.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The army acknowledges that some injuries are very subjective and say new efforts are being made now to identify traumatic brain injury, or TBI, and post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD.

Brigadier General Reuben Jones oversees the physical evaluation process for the Army.

BRIG. GEN. REUBEN JONES, U.S. Army: For this conflict here, we're finding that our cases are tougher. They're more complex, and that's because of the reality of the war. The high-energy explosives that we see from the IEDs are delivering a soldier that is, in fact, has an injury that is disabling.

We are seeing a large number of cases involving PTSD and TBI, and it's something that the department has attempted to go out and educate the force so that everyone is aware. First of all, soldiers get education, leaders get educated in recognizing the injury, and we take that information, as well, as we judge cases.

Living with pain

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In Daniel Webb's case, Smith believes his rating was low because his disability is caused by pain.

RON SMITH: They don't rate limitation of motion if the limitation is based on pain; only if there's a mechanical reason why the arm or leg or back, in this case, can't move to the normal range.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sergeant Webb did appeal his 10 percent rating but failed to get a higher one. The Army would not comment specifically on Webb's case, but they say they take great pains to treat each case carefully and independently.

BRIG. GEN. REUBEN JONES: We go painstakingly through each document, and often soldiers appear to us in person to explain their injuries or provide clarifying information, and that's what we use in order to make that determination.

We don't get it right 100 percent of the time. Our system is run by humans, but we trying 100 percent of the time to get it right. And we also provide the soldier with an opportunity to appeal decisions made by our process. We have numerous opportunities for that, and we ensure that the soldier clearly understands that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But for many soldiers like Webb, the process of ongoing appeals is overwhelming.