Fight­ing Wal­ter Reed Af­ter Fight­ing the War

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By David Yancey

Ihad a big an­niver­sary last week. April 1 marked the end of two full years I’ve spent at Wal­ter Reed Army Med­i­cal Cen­ter. Like a lot of out­pa­tients who’ve been here a long time, I was happy to see the Wash­ing­ton Post re­port about the lousy con­di­tions and the de­lays and frus­tra­tions sol­diers face when they’re ready to leave the ser­vice. But the bu­reau­cratic ob­sta­cles that in­jured sol­diers have to fight through are still a prob­lem, for me and a lot of oth­ers. Re­form­ing the dis­abil­ity sys­tem that keeps us hang­ing around for no rea­son — a sys­tem so com­plex that it’s all but im­pos­si­ble for sol­diers to nav­i­gate it — is go­ing to take longer than ren­o­vat­ing Build­ing 18.

I was hit while serv­ing in Iraq with the Mis­sis­sippi Na­tional Guard early in the spring of 2005. I was the gun­ner on a Humvee headed to­ward Bagh­dad. A bomb buried in the road ex­ploded and tore our ve­hi­cle in half. The driver lost his legs. At the time, I thought I was lucky — the blast frac­tured my left fe­mur, and sev­ered the brachial artery and caused ma­jor nerve dam­age in my right arm. It also broke sev­eral ribs, col­lapsed a lung and caused trau­matic brain in­jury. Three days later, I was in a place I’d never heard of un­til I woke up there: Wal­ter Reed.

For the first year, through sev­eral surg­eries, I felt that the med­i­cal staffers knew what they were do­ing, even though they did seem ea­ger to move sol­diers out of the hospi­tal. Liv­ing in Mologne House, the Army’s ho­tel at Wal­ter Reed, I tried to cope with a man­ual wheel­chair that I could barely move. I nearly lost my arm a sec­ond time when it got caught in the door to my room, rup­tur­ing my brachial artery again. My arm filled with blood, but the doc­tors were able to save it. Over time, with the help of phys­i­cal ther­a­pists, I grad­u­ated from a wheel­chair to crutches to a cane. Now, with a ti­ta­nium rod in my leg, I walk with a limp.

I still can’t make it more than a few blocks with­out need­ing to rest. I’ve lost strength in my right arm. I suf­fer from mi­graines, me­mory loss and symp­toms of post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

As my med­i­cal con­di­tion has sta­bi­lized, I have waited month af­ter month for the dis­abil­ity sys­tem to de­cide whether I can re­tire and un­der what cir­cum­stances. As a sol­dier, if your de­gree of dis­abil­ity is rated at 30 per­cent, you re­ceive monthly checks, health in­sur­ance and other priv­i­leges. If not, you get a sin­gle sev­er­ance check. And when you turn to Vet­er­ans Af­fairs for ben­e­fits, you have to pay back the sev­er­ance.

At this time a year ago, I thought I would be head­ing home af­ter my or­tho­pe­dist wrote a nar­ra­tive sum­mary of my in­juries, a step that’s sup­posed to trig­ger the dis­abil­ity eval­u­a­tion process. The De­fense De­part­ment says sol­diers should go be­fore a med­i­cal eval­u­a­tion board 30 days af­ter that. In­stead it took seven months.

I spent those months shut­tling from doc­tor to doc­tor, try­ing to col­lect all the re­ports and up­dates I needed. I went to case man­agers, my pla­toon first sergeant and the phys­i­cal eval­u­a­tion board li­ai­son of­fi­cer (called a PEBLO), who is sup­posed to co­or­di­nate the process. (She was away tak­ing classes for nearly two months last sum­mer, and in­stead of my case be­ing as­signed to an­other PEBLO, ev­ery­thing stalled un­til she re­turned.) David Shel­don, the civil­ian at­tor­ney who was rep­re­sent­ing me at no cost, wrote let­ters ask­ing the au­thor­i­ties to move more quickly. I asked the Na­tional Guard li­ai­son at Wal­ter Reed for help; I stood up in hospi­tal “town meet­ings” to com­plain.

It was a de­press­ing time. The brain in­jury com­pli­cated my ef­forts to bat­tle the bu­reau­cracy: I was ir­ri­ta­ble and had trou­ble re­mem­ber­ing things and con­cen­trat­ing on tasks at hand. Back in Mis­sis­sippi, my fa­ther, who had Lou Gehrig’s dis­ease, was in and out of the hospi­tal, but I couldn’t be with my fam­ily much to help out. He died last March.

Fi­nally, in Oc­to­ber, I re­ceived my med board re­port; the fol­low­ing month I got my dis­abil­ity rat­ing. I was rated at just 10 per­cent for my arm in­juries. The board gave no rat­ings for my dam­aged leg, my mi­graines, or my trau­matic brain in­jury and sub­se­quent psy­cho­log­i­cal and cog­ni­tive prob­lems. I dis­agreed with the find­ings and asked for a for­mal hear­ing.

I spent thou­sands of dol­lars, at my lawyer’s rec­om­men­da­tion, on civil­ian doc­tors, who wrote their own re­ports. We went to the for­mal hear­ing on Jan. 17, hop­ing for a fairer rat­ing. The for­mal board didn’t reach a de­ci­sion; it wanted ad­di­tional X-rays.

At this point, I con­tacted Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Rep. Gene Tay­lor (D-Miss.), whose staffs were a big help. I didn’t want to ask for as­sis­tance; con­gress­men have im­por­tant is­sues to work on. But I felt I didn’t have a choice — my fu­ture was at stake.

In late Fe­bru­ary, I was of­fered a 30 per­cent rat­ing. I signed the pa­per­work on March 6. Then came an­other round of mis­takes and de­lays — wrong forms, miss­ing re­ports, or­ders that didn’t come through, ad­min­is­tra­tors who con­tra­dicted what other ad­min­is­tra­tors were telling me — be­fore I could com­plete my out­pro­cess­ing. I could never let down my guard. If I had signed one par­tic­u­lar form that my out­pro­cess­ing man­ager in­sisted I had to sign, I could have lost my health in­sur­ance.

I sus­pect that my go­ing out­side the chain of com­mand has caused some reper­cus­sions. One day, I was es­corted to my PEBLO’s of­fice (as if I didn’t know the way), only to learn that there was no rea­son to be there. And when my med­i­cal records were re­turned to me last month, key doc­u­ments were miss­ing. No one seems to know where they are. For­tu­nately, I’d made copies of ev­ery­thing, just as friends had urged me to do more than a year ago.

This is not sup­posed to be an ad­ver­sar­ial sys­tem, but that’s the way it feels — like an­other bat­tle to fight.

I fi­nally got my or­ders. I ex­pect to leave for home next week and re­turn to civil­ian life. I hope I never have to re­turn to Wal­ter Reed.



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